Officials quiz St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman about sewage spills

Legislators ask Rick Kriseman why a study warning of spills was not heeded.
Published September 21 2016
Updated September 21 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County's legislative delegation quizzed local officials Tuesday about the region's growing sewer crisis.

Much of the two-hour meeting centered around a study that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and his top aides say they did not learn about until last week. The city-ordered study warned how closing the Albert Whitted treatment plant could leave the city vulnerable to sewage spills.

But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection knew about the study last year from another document, said DEP Southwest District director Mary Yeargan, who also attended the meeting.

"We read the report in the fall last year after Albert Whitted closed," Yeargan said, adding that the agency requested the study from the city a year ago.

The revelation came during a meeting of the Pinellas County legislative delegation at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, led by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Officials did not take questions from the 200 residents at the meeting.

"Tell us about the 2014 report," Latvala said to Kriseman.

Kriseman reiterated that he had not seen the report until recently, and that he wanted answers to make sure this never happens again. He said the city attorney would hire an outside firm to investigate why top leaders didn't get the report.

"We are asking the same questions," Kriseman said.

After the meeting Tuesday, the city released records showing that Thomas Gibson, the director of engineering and capital improvements, signed the contract for the $94,340 study on Feb. 10, 2014. Ten employees in the water resources department were copied on the letter. Gibson did not return a call for comment.

Lawmakers then pressed Kriseman to explain why the city closed the Albert Whitted plant.

Kriseman said a consultant's 2012 report showed that the Southwest wastewater treatment plant could handle the additional capacity if the Albert Whitted plant closed. He then said: "A lot of the decisions were made well before I took office" in 2014.

Heavy rains from Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed many of the area's aging sewer systems, causing almost 256 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage to spill into streets and local waterways. St. Petersburg alone spilled 151 million gallons.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who called for a state investigation in June after Tropical Storm Colin caused lesser spills, said residents are concerned about the transparency of all the sewer woes in the county.

Lawmakers at the meeting Tuesday wanted to know why the state would allow St. Petersburg to shut down the Albert Whitted sewage plant in 2015 before another plant could be fully expanded. Yeargan said the city reported that "it had the capacity to divert the flow."

Yeargan added that the state cannot yet provide a breakdown of how much of the dumped sewage was raw or partially treated. The state is exploring options to create a system to show spills in real time, she said.

St. Petersburg Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley cautioned that it would take two years and be too costly for the shuttered Albert Whitted plant to come back online. Until the Southwest plant can be upgraded to handle additional capacity, he said, the city is open to any suggestion to prevent future spills, including renting barges or operating temporary treatment centers or storage facilities.

Latvala vowed to hold another meeting so residents can ask questions.

As Kriseman talked to reporters after the meeting, he vowed to hold people accountable.

"It's not a coverup," he said. "There is nothing being done by my administration to cover up anything."

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

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