ST. PETERSBURG — About two dozen residents spent Monday evening quizzing city officials about planned work on the sewer system in a forum that distilled the fears and confusion of a city bracing for the coming rainy season.
At issue was a state consent order that is being finalized in the wake of the recent sewage crisis: St. Petersburg discharged 200 million gallons of sewage onto land and water during the heavy rains of the past two summers. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection order, which should be agreed upon by mid-April, would compel the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fix its ailing sewer system.
That would help the city avoid up to $810,000 in state penalties.
"We can't afford to kick this can down the block anymore and let someone else handle it," Public Works Department spokesman Bill Logan told the forum at the Lake Vista Recreation Center.
City officials detailed the work being undertaken on the city's 937 miles of pipes to reduce the amount of stormwater seeping into them. They explained how new injection wells at the Southwest and Northwest wastewater treatment plants should help the city dispose of treated sewage by pumping it deep underground. And they outlined massive projects to expand capacity at the city's three remaining sewer plants (closing the Albert Whitted plant in 2015 helped precipitate the sewage crisis.)
City Council chair Darden Rice said the city is interested in hearing residents' ideas on how to spend the money on pollution-control projects. But most of the speakers had broader concerns.
While some residents complimented the city on its efforts, others wanted assurances that this coming summer won't see a repeat of the last two.
Walter Donnelly, who lives in the Bayway area, asked: What percentage odds can the city give that another sewage spill won't happen again?
Interim Water Resources director John Palenchar said it all depends on the severity of the storms that hit the city. But, he said, if the new wells and upgrades are in place by this summer, as planned, the city could handle a rain event like the three weeks of steady rain in August 2015 and produced the city's first sewage discharges.
Other residents worried that investing so much money in the Southwest plant near Eckerd College was a wasted effort because it sits in a low-lying, vulnerable area on the southern tip of the county. It would be at risk, they argued, in the face of rising seas and more violent storms associated with climate change.
"Who's got the contract for 500,000 porta-potties?" quipped Claire Karas, 64, of Maximo Moorings. She said if a major hurricane hit the city, the plan to make the Southwest plant the workhorse of the system would backfire.
Instead, she said, the city should explore building a new sewer plant on higher ground.
City Council member Steve Kornell said he was disappointed that, despite a requirement in the consent order that the city explain what it plans to do with the shuttered waterfront Albert Whitted sewer plant. City officials did not mention the plant in their opening remarks.
"That's a large omission," Kornell said.
Palenchar said the city would address the fate of Albert Whitted as it crafts a master plan for the sewer system, but that the closed plant is "an unknown quantity."
The city closed Albert Whitted in April 2015. Since then, city and DEP officials have both said its closure exacerbated the city's sewage woes.
Meadowlawn resident Jeff Stewart, 39, questioned Mayor Rick Kriseman's $304 million sewer repair plan, saying he thought it would likely be more expensive.
"I want to foot the bill for the right plan," he said.
Kriseman attended the first part of the meeting, but didn't address the forum. Instead, the mayor talked with residents during a break.
The often technical information left some residents still grasping for answers. But they were still hopeful that the city was on the right track.
"I'm concerned about what happened last summer, but I don't feel I know what they're going to do," said Joyce Caspary, 78, an Isla del Sol resident. "But they seem like they know what they're doing."
A second public information session on the consent order will be held March 15 at the Azalea Recreation Center, 1600 72nd St N.