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St. Petersburg mayoral candidates tout green agendas

ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Wagman wants to ban St. Augustine grass from every lawn in the city. Kathleen Ford wants to generate power from the sewer system's methane gas. And Jamie Bennett wants every municipal building to sprout solar panels.

The candidates running to be St. Petersburg's next mayor are determined to prove they're environmentally friendly. They throw around the word "green'' like their name is O'Malley. And they tend to be vague on the details.

The environment has joined crime and economic development as a major topic. Credit the clampdown on lawn watering and the rise in gas prices, say the candidates. Credit, too, the fact that St. Petersburg has become well-known for its bicycle paths and parks, amenities that help attract new residents.

"People are more aware of environmental issues now because they read about it more and they see it on the news constantly," said candidate Bill Foster, a former City Council member.

Wagman, a former paint manufacturer who was endorsed by the Sierra Club, says he finds voters are keenly interested in the environment.

"As soon as I mention the Sierra Club endorsement, it never fails to stir interest," said Wagman, who started a paint-recycling program that now involves 13 counties, but also had to pay $400,000 in 1993 to clean up contamination at one of his plant sites.

That Wagman got the endorsement left Bennett feeling disappointed. He said he started a City Hall aluminum recycling program in 2001, pushed Mayor Rick Baker to pursue a Green City designation for St. Petersburg and, most recently, spearheaded the passage of an ordinance restricting the use of nitrogen fertilizers during the rainy season — an antipollution measure the Sierra Club had been pushing.

"I just passed the fertilizer ordinance they wanted, and then to have them give the endorsement to somebody else — well, I guess the game isn't always what you think it is," Bennett said.

• • •

Not every green proposal that the candidates toss out is practical — or even particularly green.

Several candidates say they are advocates of solar power. Ford, for instance, wants to "make St. Petersburg the nation's solar energy capital." She and Bennett both want panels on city buildings.

To Wagman — who wants to require Progress Energy to buy excess energy from residents with solar panels — putting them on municipal buildings seems pointless. "From a political and symbolic standpoint I guess putting panels on those buildings makes sense," Wagman said. "They might make enough energy to power a couple of light bulbs. But it will not generate enough energy to even run the air-conditioning."

Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, said city officials would be better off putting in more energy-efficient air conditioners than installing photovoltaic panels. But he said he understood why candidates would tout the panels —known as PVs — instead of promising to conserve energy.

"PV's are sexy right now," Fenton joked, "and people pay a lot of money for sex."

The support for solar doesn't stop at the rooftop. Bennett, Ford, Foster and Deveron Gibbons all want St. Petersburg to create so-called green-collar jobs, by bringing in a factory to manufacture solar panels.

"Living in the Sunshine City in the Sunshine State, we should be leading the nation in solar energy panel design, manufacturing and installation," Ford says on her Web site.

"It's a clean industry. That's the kind of industry we want, clean industry," Foster said.

But the manufacture of solar panels is anything but a clean industry. It requires the use of such toxic chemicals as sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and hydrogen fluoride. It also involves an extremely potent greenhouse gas, sulfur hexafluoride.

"Oh," Foster said, when told about the toxic chemicals. After a pause he said, "I don't know the science that goes into that."

Similarly, Foster suggested Wagman's proposal to ban St. Augustine grass shows a lack of research.

Wagman said he wanted to get rid of it to conserve water.

"Nothing sucks up water worse than St. Augustine grass," Wagman said.

Instead he would require "Florida friendly" landscaping that would not require sprinkling so often, and encourage homeowners to put out cisterns to collect rain.

"That means everyone in Shore Acres would be picking up their lawns," objected Foster, who said he would require the use of native plants on city property but not on private land.

Shore Acres homes have lawns that flood repeatedly, he said, yet the saltwater never kills off their St. Augustine grass.

"It never has an impact," he said. "You just sprinkle it once and it's as good as new."

• • •

Perhaps the sharpest contrast is between Gibbons and Ford.

Gibbons has been more cautious about defining his stands than any of the other candidates. When the Sierra Club sent the candidates a questionnaire, he responded to four of the 19 questions by asking the club's opinion.

For instance, when asked if he would support creating a recycling industries hub in the Dome Industrial District, Gibbons wrote that he had heard the idea discussed, but "I am not familiar with any plan to create a recycling industries hub in that area of the city but would be interested in your view of the issue." A spokesman said he would not be available to comment for this article.

Ford, on the other hand, has proposed enough green initiatives to blanket a state forest. She wants to use recycled plastic for street poles and signs. She wants to invest in wind energy, perhaps by putting small turbines on buildings. She wants the city to repair all its leaky pipes and install rain barrels.

And she likes an idea that came from Milwaukee: "They have added a methane-capture system to their sewer system. We could do that and convert it to energy and use that to power the plant."

However, Ford got some of the details wrong.

Milwaukee hasn't built the $80 million methane system yet — in part because the 17-mile-long pipeline that would be required to make it work needs state and federal permits.

The reason Milwaukee must pipe the gas to the wastewater plant is because the methane isn't coming from its sewage system. It's from the landfill.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates tout green agendas 08/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 6:03pm]
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