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Days before election, St. Pete City Council tussles over sewage

By Charlie Frago
Partially-treated sewage discharges into Tampa Bay from a St. Petersburg city sewage plant in September 2016 during the height of the city's 13-month, billion-gallon sewage crisis. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — One last spat before Election Day broke out along political lines at Thursday’s City Council meeting between supporters of incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker.

And once again the subject was the city’s two-year sewage crisis — and who is to blame — which has been a constant theme of the bitter six-month battle between the Kriseman and Baker campaigns.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: No criminal charges in St. Pete’s 1 billion gallon sewage crisis (Oct. 27, 2017)

During the regular sewer report, City Council member Karl Nurse asked interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar to discuss this development:

The city estimates the sewer system is experiencing, on average, a drop of about 3 million gallons per day of stormwater entering through leaky pipes or manholes compared to previous years.

Seepage into the city’s ancient pipes was blamed as a factor in the city’s massive 2015-16 sewage crisis. Nurse, a Kriseman supporter, said that’s good news for the city. It means the city’s efforts to fix its sewage problems are working, and treating less waste will save money.

"You’ll have an ongoing savings and you’ll have a much lower need for expansion (of sewage capacity)," Nurse said.

Council member Steve Kornell hasn’t endorsed either mayor. But he has been the council’s most vocal critic of how the city handled the sewage crisis.

"I’m not ready to say mission accomplished yet," Kornell said, noting that many past projections by consultants and city sewer officials have missed the mark.

The Baker supporters on the council then veered into a discussion of the Kriseman administration’s transparency regarding a recent sewage discharge.

Council members Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari — along with Kornell — all criticized the administration for failing to alert the public that 15.5 million gallons of sewage was flushed down injection wells after Hurricane Irma. At the time, the city reported that 430,000 gallons had spilled at the Northeast plant on Sept. 11 and that it was pumping "low chlorine residual water" through the injection well.

It was Kornell who first brought to the issue to light in an Oct. 19 Facebook post. The administration alerted the public about the full extent of the discharge days later. Palenchar later said it was a mistake not to do so right away. Injecting waste down the wells is also a violation of state environmental regulations.

Kennedy questioned the city’s transparency about that incident, especially since Kriseman hired former TV weatherman Bill Logan at the start of the year specifically to keep the public informed about sewage issues. Logan makes $93,600 a year.

"I think there would be more consistency especially when you have a professional spokesman for the department," Kennedy said. "How do we have those difficulties in communication when we have someone whose sole job is to communicate?" Logan told the Times he wasn’t told about the extent of the discharge, which Palenchar confirmed.

Kriseman did not attend the council meeting. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin was there, and she defended the administration’s transparency: "Certainly no one in the administration is working to willfully mislead the public."

Nurse also pointed out the city had no other option but to flush the sewage underground. Would it be better to dump it into nearby ponds and lakes, he asked? That’s what happened during the 2015-16 sewage crisis.

After all that, the council then delayed a discussion of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report that charged the city with committing 89 felonies while it spewed up to 1 billion gallons of waste during the 13-month sewage crisis from 2015-16.

Council chair Darden Rice said they should delay that discussion because a key official couldn’t be there to answer questions and members need more time to digest the city’s own reports. Tuesday’s election was not mentioned. Rice is a Kriseman supporter, and forestalling discussion could be seen as benefiting the incumbent, whose administration was criticized in the report.

Still, council agreed to table the FWC report until December. In the meantime the city is spending $326 million to fix its sewer system under the terms of a state consent order.

The sewage debate continued outside City Hall. Baker issued a statement commending Kornell for speaking out about the Irma discharge.

"The people were promised the truth and deserve the truth," Baker said.

Kriseman issued a statement saying he was "disappointed, but not surprised" that Baker’s supporters would attempt to "make political hay" of the issue.

"Aside from the delay related to the final tally of gallons injected, there was an abundance of communication and transparency," the mayor said.

Election Day is Tuesday.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: ST. PETERSBURG SEWAGE WOES

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor’s race (May 29, 2017)

St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill (July 21, 2017)

Rick Kriseman’s administration lashed in St. Pete sewage report (July 22, 2017)

Email warning ignored before St. Pete started spewing sewage (July 24, 2017)

St. Pete comes clean on sewage flushed underground after Irma (Oct. 25, 2017)

City engineer says Mayor Rick Kriseman retaliated against him (Oct. 31, 2017)