No more talk, St. Petersburg City Council tells mayor's staff, it's time to fix sewage mess

St. Petersburg's city administrator says a plan is on the way.
St. Petersburg closed the Albert Whitted sewage plant in 2015. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
St. Petersburg closed the Albert Whitted sewage plant in 2015.SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published October 27 2016
Updated October 28 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — After two hours of peppering the city's top sewage official with questions, St. Petersburg City Council members said they're tired of Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration flip-flopping on how to solve the sewage crisis.

The council said it wants the city to come up with an action plan — even if it costs taxpayers' money.

Those pointed comments came Thursday after public works administrator Claude Tankersley said it may not be feasible to reopen the Albert Whitted waterfront sewage plant. Closing the plant in 2015 played a major role in the tens of millions of gallons of waste spilled in the past 14 months.

But that reverses Tankersley's recommendation this month that the city should permanently reopen the facility.

"You were adamant to open it back up," council member Ed Montanari said. "We've been waiting for the plan. We seem to be going all over the place."

Council member Steve Kornell told Tankersley it's unfair that he bears the criticism for the mayor's many shifts during the crisis.

"I'm getting tired of pulling up the truth over and over again," Kornell said.

In response, City Administrator Gary Cornwell interrupted: "Thursday, we will bring a plan on what the administration wants to do."

That plan will include price estimates for short-term and long-term solutions, Cornwell said. But no financial figures were given.

Council members also learned that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is the latest agency to launch an investigation into the city's sewage problems.

Assistant City Attorney Kim Streeter said a federal agent has already questioned a city worker. The employee told Streeter the agent was with an officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Streeter told the council that was her first confirmation that the federal agency is investigating the city.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the city's sewage dumps and spills. Since August 2015, the city has discharged nearly 200 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay, local waterways and watersheds and even neighborhoods.

The DEP doesn't have the ability to pursue criminal prosecutions. For that, the state relies upon the wildlife commission's law enforcement officers.

As Kriseman's team finalizes its plan, a crucial component will come today during a meeting with the DEP.

The city needs guidance on how to dispose of wastewater at the Albert Whitted plant that doesn't meet the standards of "reject water" by pumping it down injection wells, Tankersley told the council.

In fact, the DEP told the city it had to build a storage tank to hold the "reject water," which it deemed too dirty to pump deep underground. City officials said that was one of the reasons the city closed the Albert Whitted plant in the first place. Kriseman then wanted to convert it to a fish farm, but that plan was abandoned.

Tankersley said he doesn't expect a quick answer, which would close the window on opening the shuttered plant by next year's rainy season.

"We need them to tell us we have flexibility," he said. "We're trying to get all the due diligence done."

At the end of the meeting, council member Karl Nurse said taxpayers should be told the costs, adding: "Bring us a solution and flop it on our table."

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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