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Against City Council's wishes, company sued over Flint water crisis helping fix St. Petersburg's sewage woes

Old Northeast residents (left to right) Marci Emerson, Arden Katcha, 8, and Arden's mother, Martha Collins, protest the city's handling of its sewage problems in 2016. The St. Petersburg City Council is not happy that a company tied to the Flint water crisis in Michigan, Veolia ES Technical Solutions, has been hired to work on St. Petersburg's sewage woes. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]

Old Northeast residents (left to right) Marci Emerson, Arden Katcha, 8, and Arden's mother, Martha Collins, protest the city's handling of its sewage problems in 2016. The St. Petersburg City Council is not happy that a company tied to the Flint water crisis in Michigan, Veolia ES Technical Solutions, has been hired to work on St. Petersburg's sewage woes. [LARA CERRI | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — A company embroiled in the Flint water crisis in Michigan is now helping to solve St. Petersburg's sewage woes.

But that troubles some City Council members, who voted to remove the company from being considered for another contract because of its link to the Flint situation.

Last week a City Council committee voted unanimously to remove Veolia ES Technical Solutions from the running for a contract to evaluate the management of the city's Water Resources Department, the division at the heart of the sewage crisis.

The Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee took that action after learning about the company's connection to the Flint water crisis: Veolia is being sued by the Michigan Attorney General's Office for its role in the lead contamination discovered in Flint's drinking water in 2014.

But St. Petersburg City Council members said they didn't know about Veolia's connection to the Flint crisis when they approved a $2.8 million contract with another division of Veolia to provide filters for the city's Southwest sewer plant. That is a critical component of the city's plan to avoid a third-straight summer of overflowing sewage.

Veolia ES Technical Solutions, which was eliminated from consideration for St. Petersburg's $50,000 management study, is part of Veolia North America. That arm of Veolia is being sued by the Michigan Attorney General's Office. Michigan officials allege the company created a public nuisance and committed fraud by not revealing potential lead contamination when it undertook a comprehensive study of Flint's water system in 2015.

Veolia responded at the time that the suit was "outrageous" and the allegations "false, inaccurate and unwarranted."

The company has been cleared of any wrongdoing by a Flint task force created by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to a Veolia website dedicated to rebutting the claims of the lawsuit.

St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster said she would have liked to have known about Veolia's involvement in the Flint crisis before she and other council members voted to approve St. Petersburg's multi-million sewer contract in January.

"Of course it's a concern," said Foster.

Also troubling to Foster is Veolia's insistence on limiting its liability for the filters to the cost of the contract, a departure from normal city procedures.

Veolia did not want St. Petersburg to hold it liable for anything more than the $2.8 million contract. When city attorneys notified the City Council of this in February, Foster and other council members voiced their uneasiness. Yet Public Works Director Claude Tankersley urged them to approve the purchase.

Tankersley recommended that the contract be approved because the city wants to have the filters in place by early June, when the next hurricane season and rainy season starts. Dickering over liability would only delay the process, he said.

Foster said she was uneasy with that arrangement, but ultimately the council unanimously approved the contract.

City attorneys have since negotiated a stipulation with Veolia that could require the company to pay more than $2.8 million if the filters arrive late, or aren't manufactured properly.

After Veolia's legal troubles came to light, Foster wondered why the council wasn't told about the Flint connection in the first place.

Interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar said another company, I. Kruger, Inc. won the bid. But then it was acquired by Veolia Water Technologies.

Veolia is a huge global company, Palenchar said, adding that he doubted Veolia Water Technologies, which is making the filters, had much to do with the subsidiary that studied Flint's water system. That is correct, said Veolia spokesman Paul Whitmore. Veolia Water Technologies is a separate entity from Veolia North America, he said.

"We are actually sister companies and both report in to Veolia Environnement in Paris," he wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "We are separately managed in North America."

Whitmore directed all other questions to the company's website about the Flint lawsuit.

Foster said the Veolia contract is a good example of why council members need to know more about the backgrounds of vying for city contracts.

As council chairwoman last year, she led the effort to require contracts above $50,000 to be reviewed by the City Council. That move was prompted after it was revealed during the sewage crisis that a consultant's study had warned of a possible overflow at the Albert Whitted plant.

But elected officials said they never saw that report before the plant started overflowing in 2015. Some council members believe the study may have been deliberately kept below the previous $100,000 threshold to prevent them from reviewing it.

"This should all be part of due diligence," Foster said. "I think that's really important this gets into our procedure."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

Against City Council's wishes, company sued over Flint water crisis helping fix St. Petersburg's sewage woes 03/03/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 3, 2017 6:03pm]
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