ST. PETERSBURG — A $65 million project to turn sewage into renewable energy poses no risk to public safety, the city's public works administrator told City Council members Thursday.
Claude Tankersley and council members pushed back against a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report that said the city's biosolids project at the Southwest plant was risky because it would produce and store methane gas next to the campus of Eckerd College.
The project has been thoroughly vetted, Tankersley said, and the city is negotiating a contract with its partner in the venture, TECO Peoples Gas.
"A year ago, I was worried about the safety myself because I was unfamiliar with these projects," he said. "But now, over the past year, with TECO helping us out, my concerns with that have gone away."
The FWC draft report that criticized the biosolids project was the same one that placed much of the blame for the 2015-16 sewage crisis on the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman. The sewage issue has become the issue in Kriseman's election battle with former Mayor Rick Baker.
The mayor's race didn't come up during Thursday's council meeting, but some Kriseman supporters did make a point to defend the biosolids project. Chairwoman Darden Rice and council member Charlie Gerdes criticized the report and questioned the expertise of the investigators.
The risks outlined by FWC were echoed by a Baker supporter on the council, Ed Montanari.
"Some of the issues that I have heard about include safety of our residents, facility and plant workers," Montanari said.
Accidents at biogas facilities are rare, Tankersley said, adding that statistically they are safer than sewer plants.
FWC has been conducting a criminal investigation into the city's sewage crisis, which has seen up to 200 million gallons of sewage dumped into local waterways and streets since August 2015. Agency officials declined to respond to the council's criticism.
"Since the FWC investigation into this matter is active and ongoing, and no formal report has been issued, we wouldn't want to speculate by commenting at this time," said spokesman Robert Klepper.
The draft report states: "Flammable gases are normally stored and produced in industrial areas far from neighborhoods or schools. The city has decided to install this production mere feet from a school," referring to Eckerd College. The college at 4200 54th Ave S has about 1,800 students.
Kelly Kirschner, dean of executive and continuing education at Eckerd, said he was taken aback by the report's warnings about student safety.
"It's pretty inflammatory, no pun intended, to put something out like that," Kirschner said.
FWC did not release the draft report because it considers the investigation ongoing. The Tampa Bay Times obtained a copy from the city. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office said last month it considers the matter closed and does not plan to file charges over the sewage discharges.
The college supports the city's effort to become more energy efficient, Kirschner said. An independent sewer consultant hired by the college studied the project and declared it safe, he said.
The biosolids project, due to be completed by April 2019, will convert wastewater byproducts into methane gas, which could then be integrated into the natural gas distribution system for Peoples Gas. The city will be able to use what it provides to the gas company to power its sanitation trucks and the Southwest sewage plant, Tankersley said.
The final details of the partnership with TECO are still being worked out, he said.
The FWC report also criticized the city for applying for state funds to pay for the project instead of using that money to fix its ailing sewer system.
Tankersley said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had all signed off on the project.
"Those are the agencies that have credibility to make any kind of opinions on this project," he said. "FWC doesn't have that credibility."
Rice said Tankersley and Kirschner had "poked some holes" in the FWC report. She asked that the city send a transcript of Thursday's meeting to the state agency to consider for its final report.
Not all council members were persuaded that moving forward with the project was a good idea.
"I'm still concerned that we're putting all the sewage from downtown and all the biosolids into Southwest," said Kornell, who represents neighborhoods surrounding the plant. Those residents share his concerns, he said.
Council member Karl Nurse asked Tankersley if ,during his long career, he could recall any neighborhood that didn't fight the expansion or construction of a sewage plant near their homes. Tankersley said he could not.
"Nothing further," Nurse said.