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No criminal charges in St. Pete’s 1 billion gallon sewage crisis

By Charlie Frago
During the St. Petersburg sewage crisis, the city's ancient sewer system released about 200 million gallons of sewage into local watersways, spurring state and federal investigations and becoming a focal point of debate among the leading mayoral candidates. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — No city employees will face criminal charges as a result of the massive sewage discharges of 2015-16, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced on Friday.

But that doesn’t mean no crimes were committed. In fact, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators said they found evidence that 89 felonies and 103 misdemeanors were committed as the city befouled itself over 13 months.

Its overwhelmed sewage system released up to 200 million gallons of waste into neighborhoods and waterways. Tens of millions more were pumped underground.

The FWC report said the city pumped 700 to 800 millions gallons underground, the first time that tally has been reported. That means St. Petersburg released a total of up to 1 billion gallons during the sewage crisis.

"The scale of this illegal wastewater discharge is unprecedented in state history," FWC investigator Ammon Fisher wrote in the report.

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FWC blamed the long-term problem on the city’s two-decade failure to invest in and maintain its sewage system. But in the short-term, the report blamed the decisions made by the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman leading up to and during the crisis.

The state launched the investigation on Oct. 23, 2016 and finished the report last week on Oct. 19. McCabe’s office received it the next day.

He said the final report — largely the same as the draft he received in July — does not identify individuals who may be responsible for the discharges. Thus there is no one to prosecute.

"There’s a where. There’s a when. There’s no who," McCabe said. "It would totally be a waste of time and resources to hold the city criminally accountable."

Further, the county’s top prosecutor said, a consent decree the city reached over the summer with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to spend $326 million to fix the sewage system should remedy the problem. The city has already spent $70 million on repairs.

The FWC delivered the report to McCabe’s office a week ago, amidst an intense and expensive mayoral race. Former Mayor Rick Baker has wielded the sewage mess like a cudgel against Kriseman. The report was made public Friday, the day before early voting starts Saturday and 11 days before Election Day.

"On November 7th voters have an opportunity to hold Rick Kriseman accountable for his grossly incompetent leadership," Baker campaign director Nick Hansen said in a statement.

The Kriseman campaign did not return a request for comment.

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St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes, a Kriseman supporter, said he thought the flurry of recent bad news for the city had been designed to hurt the incumbent’s re-election hopes. FWC declined to comment on timing of the report’s release.

"Too much has happened in too much of a contracted period of time," Gerdes said.

The Tampa Bay Times this week also reported that the city pumped 15.5 million gallons of partially-treated sewage underground last month as a result of Hurricane Irma. It was the biggest discharge since the 2015-16 mess — one the city did not disclose until recently. The Times also reported the city is losing millions of gallons of water from its system, but officials aren’t sure why.

Gerdes also applauded McCabe’s decision: "I firmly believe there were errors in judgment that were definitely made. I don’t think anybody had any intent to break the law. Nobody made a conscious decision to break the law."

The Florida Democratic Party, which has campaigned heavily for Kriseman, also issued a statement accusing Gov. Rick Scott of manipulating state agencies for political advantage. Kriseman has highlighted partisanship in this officially non-partisan race, while Baker has received substantial financial support from GOP donors.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find the political motivation here," the statement said.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, a South Pasadena Republican, who called for a state investigation at the height of last year’s spills, said Friday that the report’s conclusions were damning.

"I was absolutely infuriated," Peters said.

The final FWC report expands on the earlier version’s blistering assessment of the city’s maintenance and decision-making related to its sewer system over 20 years (which would include Baker’s tenure in City Hall) but focused mainly on the recent discharges.

The report specifically criticized Kriseman’s decision not reopen the shuttered Albert Whitted sewage plant after the initial spills in 2015. The City Council voted in 2011 to close it and the Kriseman administration carried out that plan in 2015, leaving the city with three sewage plants.

"What is not contestable, is the fact that an operational (Albert Whitted) would have significantly mitigated the discharges from (Southwest) and (Albert Whitted)," the report said.

In addition to the 100 million or so gallons of controlled discharges made into Tampa Bay, the city also spilled nearly 100 million more gallons in the neighborhoods and streets around the Northwest sewage plant in west St. Petersburg and at its Southwest plant near Eckerd College.

The up to 800 million gallons that was pumped underground was done so using injection wells throughout the city, at the Northeast, Northwest and Southwest plants.

"The continual disregard for compliance with the Clean Water Act has put the ground water at risk," the report concluded.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] Follow @CharlieFrago.