ST. PETERSBURG — Some people came to listen, others to offer ideas, and a few simply to vent. In all, more than 60 people spent their Wednesday evening engaging with St. Petersburg officials as the city begins overhauling its overburdened sewage system.
The night's focus was a 12-page consent order drafted by the state, essentially a roadmap to fixing the city's aging system in the wake of a prolonged crisis. Fulfilling the state's requests, such as increasing wastewater plant capacity, would help St. Petersburg avoid up to $810,000 in penalties.
Martha Collins, 44, challenged the city to provide transparent, consistent testing in the aftermath of sewage spills. She also asked that warning signs get posted more quickly after spills, at a minimum within 24 hours.
"You all let my 8-year-old daughter go sailing right in the immediate area where the discharges were occurring," she said, as the audience clapped. "And that's absolutely unacceptable."
Tropical weather and summer rains have slammed St. Petersburg's aging sewer system during the last two years, causing 200 million gallons of sewage to flow into streets and waterways, especially Tampa Bay.
On Wednesday, as Mayor Rick Kriseman listened from the back of the room, city officials updated the room on planned attempts to address the problem, both short- and long-term. Those include reducing leaks in the city's nearly 1,000 miles of pipes, plugging manhole covers to reduce strain and using new injection wells to dispose of treated sewage, pumping it deep underground. Officials also built in half an hour for one-on-one discussions.
But audience questions and suggestions ranged far beyond the plans. Some attendees wanted answers about past controversies, like the shuttering of the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility. Others wanted to talk about the working environment in the Water Resources Department.
Eritha "Akilé" Cainion, a 20-year-old District 6 candidate for City Council, brought up the name of Dwight Wilson, the department's highest-ranking black official until he was forced out last spring.
"One of the critical things, I think, is to boost the morale of the workers there," Cainion said. "We're talking about a department that has had severe racial tension."
"Thank you for your comments," replied Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley.
Tankersley opened the meeting at Azalea Recreation Center, in a neighborhood particularly hard hit by flooding last summer, by talking about how the city's sewage system became so strained. He described wastewater treatment processes that quickly grew more complex, leaving public works officials rushing to keep up. He compared the system to an old house.
"If you were to build that house today, you would do it a different way," he said. That's why, he said, city officials wanted inspiration from the public.
Ginger Goepper, 63, suggested paying for sewer system work through an assessment tacked on to property tax bills and based on the size of a home or business, like Tampa recently instituted.
"You pay and know it will be used to solve the problem," she said. "What could be more costly than the disaster we had last summer?"
In a brief flareup of tension, mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel, a leader of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, spoke loudly about what he described as corruption and cover-ups in the department during months of crisis.
"Somebody needs to go to jail for what happened," he shouted. "That was a crime."
Others in the audience called for greater environmental stewardship and accountability. And when William Ward, 54, said just two meetings about the city's plans were "woefully inadequate," several nodded in agreement.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.