State proposes $820,000 fine for St. Petersburg's sewage failures
ST. PETERSBURG — The bill for the city’s 13-month sewage crisis is coming due — and it looks steep.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plans to fine the city $820,000 in civil penalties according to a 12-page proposed consent order drafted by the state, which also outlines the steps St. Petersburg needs to take to fix its aging, leaky and overburdened sewer system.
The order, delivered to the city late Thursday, can be read as a verdict woeful system that has released 200 million gallons of sewage since August 2015.
Much political damage has already been done. Three top administrators have been removed and Mayor Rick Kriseman came under heavy criticism.
But on Friday, city officials said they were already working toward complying with the order or planning to do so. And they said the state’s mandate that the work be done by mid-2018 gives St. Petersburg plenty of time to make that deadline.
“I’m pushing for us to do it much faster,” said Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley. “Everything they have proposed to us, we plan on doing anyway. We would do with or without a consent order.”
But to the City Council, that’s part of the problem: The order should be tougher on the city.
“It’s not strong enough,” Council member Karl Nurse said. “We need something in there that requires a longer range commitment so we don’t get back in the same spot in 15 years.”
Council member Steve Kornell said the city’s sewage problems threaten St. Petersburg’s development and reputation. “This could really hurt us environmentally and economically if we don’t get this right,” he said.
Kornell, who was an early critic of the Kriseman administration’s response to the first sewage spills around Eckerd College last year, said the state’s order vindicated his calls for swifter, more comprehensive action.
“The sad part of it is, had we taken it more seriously a year ago we would have had a year of additional time solve the problem,” Kornell said.
Instead, the city discharged nearly 170 million more gallons of sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays and local waterways and watersheds.
Initially, Kriseman blamed the discharges on a once in a century rain event. He balked at spending much of the city’s $6.5 million BP settlement money on sewers. And the mayor proceeded with plans to convert the shuttered Albert Whitted sewage plant into a fish farm.
But June’s Tropical Storm Colin changed Kriseman’s mind. He relented on the BP money, which council members decided to spend half of it on repairing sewers. And he canceled the fish farm, advocating instead for using the Albert Whitted plant as an emergency storage facility.
Then came the massive spills and dumps following September’s Hurricane Hermine. Those led to state and federal investigations into the city’s sewer system.
Last month, Kriseman announced plans to spend $304 million over the next five years expanding capacity at the city’s remaining three plants and fixing leaky pipes.
Much of that money will be spent fulfilling the terms of the proposed order, which city officials said closely parallels the mayor’s plans. The city doesn’t plan to ask for any significant changes to DEP’s consent order, Tankersley said.
St. Petersburg could also avoid paying the fine if it implements a pollution prevention project, either by reducing pollution or conserving the amount of waste it generates.
Tankersley said that’s what the city will do. No specific plan has been created yet but the city is studying the issue, he said.
The highlights of the consent order include:
• St. Petersburg must dig injection wells at the Southwest and Northwest plants. The wells, often up to 1,100 feet deep, are used to dispose of treated wastewater underground.
• The city must also make other improvements to increase capacity at the Southwest plant.
• St. Petersburg must proceed with plans to line pipes to repair the cracks that allow groundwater to infiltrate the city’s ancient pipe system and continue to seal leaky manhole covers that allow rainwater into the city’s sewer system.
• The city must develop a master plan to ultimately solve its sewage problems.
• Part of that master plan must also include a justification for the city’s decision not to reopen the waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant, whose closure last year played a pivotal role in the ensuing crisis. If it chooses to reopen the plant, St. Petersburg must lay out a timeline of how it plans to do so.
The city shuttered the plant in April 2015, just a few months before the massive spills and dumps began. Critics say that decision contributed to the problem.
Kriseman’s administration has flip-flopped on whether to reopen Albert Whitted. Tankersley first recommended that it be reopened, then changed his mind after saying contractors evaluating the plant said it had deteriorated too much.
But on Friday the Albert Whitted issue was still up in the air. Tankersley said the city is still evaluating its options, and officials don’t have to tell the state their plans until 2018.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.