ST. PETERSBURG — Forget that street sweeper. Take a rain check for the aerators to spruce up Lake Maggiore. And, while you’re at it, find some other source of cash to make those city recreation centers more energy efficient.
That was the message from state environmental officials this month on how St. Petersburg should satisfy a $810,000 civil penalty imposed by the agency as part of a $326 million consent decree in July.
Instead, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials offered some guidance: Focus on the sewers, especially those leaky private sewer lines that tax the system by allowing storm and groundwater into municipal wastewater pipes.
When the city agreed to the consent decree, it signed on to a plan to either pay the fine or fund an equivalent amount in pollution prevention projects.
Not surprisingly, the city opted to spend the money on projects instead of forking it over to the state. In September, City Council members held a brainstorming session to come up with projects that could meet DEP requirements. Hence, the project list that included spending $200,000 on a new street sweeper.
Earlier this month, DEP officials delivered the verdict on that wish list, rejecting the street sweeper, pond aerators and energy-efficiency programs as insufficiently focused on repairing the city’s aging, leaky sewers.
Once they receive formal notification of the rejection around Thanksgiving, city officials will have 90 days to come up with ideas to avoid adding to the total of 1 billion gallons of sewage discharged into waterways, streets and into the aquifer since 2015.
One idea from DEP: Fix the private sewer lines — called "laterals" in sewage lingo — connecting what comes out of a house’s toilets, sinks, showers and dishwashers to city lines.
"Private laterals are a huge problem in St. Pete because of aging infrastructure. That is definitely something we’d be open to," said Shannon Herbon, DEP spokeswoman.
Interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar said the state suggested using the penalty money to tackle the problem, which has been estimated to cause a large part of the seepage of ground and storm water into cracked sewer joints and lines.
"This could include money for inspections and/or incentives to repair systems that are found to be at greatest risk," said Palenchar in a statement.
While a new street sweeper may have to wait, the city’s plan to spend about $1 million to upgrade city recreation centers and other buildings to make them more energy efficient will proceed with other funds cobbled together from various pots of city cash.
But the efforts to satisfy the DEP mandate will now likely shift to private sewer lines.
Council members have been kicking around ideas to entice property owners to fix their private lines for nearly two years. They’ve debated requiring inspections of the lines before a property is sold, which drew the ire of real estate professionals. They’ve considered rebates along the lines of an existing program that encourages residents to replace antiquated, water-wasting toilets.
But no consensus has emerged yet.
City Council chairwoman Darden Rice said she understood DEP’s position, but wondered how far $810,000 would go to fix a city full of aging private lines.
"I can’t disagree that focusing on private laterals is important," Rice said. "But $800,000 doesn’t go very far when you look at the magnitude of the problem."