Daniel Ruth: Don't blame former mayors for St. Pete's sewage mess

Published September 22 2016
Updated September 23 2016

It is not a bright idea for a mayor to blame his predecessors for a massive sewage spill long after they have left office. To paraphrase Harry Truman: the sludge stops here — right on top of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's desk.

Memo to Kriseman: You're going to need a bigger bucket.

In the wake of Hurricane Hermine, the city of St. Petersburg discharged about 150 million gallons of partially treated sewage or mostly treated wastewater into the bays. The enormity of the spill was exacerbated by a decision made by a 2011 City Council vote to shut down the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant, and there were plans to transform the facility into a fish farm.

It turned out to be a disastrous decision. In August 2015, massive storms overwhelmed the city's wastewater system leading to a spill of some 30 million gallons into Clam Bayou and the Eckerd College campus. The Kriseman administration should have known about the potential to turn Tampa Bay into Calcutta.

A 2014 study prepared by a private consultant had shown the dire risks of closing the Albert Whitted plant. And it was pretty clear — the 2015 spill more than supported those concerns.

Fast forward (or perhaps gush forward) to 2016, and 150 million gallons of icky water have again validated the consultant's pollution prescience.

Now Kriseman says he did not know about the consultant's warnings, and he has announced he has tasked his legal and human resources department to work with an independent law firm to find out what happened. Translation: The dog ate my email. Let's form a committee.

Craven R. Askew, a chief operator of the city's Northwest sewage plant who has pointed to the 2014 consultant's report, has applied for protection as a whistle-blower because — let's face it — in government, the first people to get stiffed whenever embarrassingly bad news surfaces are the ones who actually know what they are talking about.

While Kriseman was insisting he never knew about the consultant's report, he also blamed former Mayors Bill Foster and Rick Baker for being inattentive to the sewer issues. But Kriseman has been mayor since 2014. And one of his top experts on wastewater treatment had alerted the city to the potential for a crisis at the start of his term. This isn't a history problem.

After all, Kriseman is the mayor of a city that sits around sea level, bordered on three sides by water. You could make an argument you don't need to be an expert to figure out that if you shut down a major wastewater treatment plant, no good will come from it.

Kriseman has two problems: A) a nasty water issue and/or B) a credibility gap.

The mayor issued a four-minute YouTube video addressing the sewage discharge problem. Yet he never mentioned the discharges from the Northwest wastewater treatment plant, nor up-to-date estimates of how much water the city had dumped into the waterways surrounding St. Petersburg.

The public isn't stupid. And it's not Pollyannaish, either.

The citizenry can take bad news. They might not like it. But most residents of the city are fully aware of the geography of their community.

With or without Askew's email and before it got lost in the seat cushions, Kriseman still had two years to assess the wisdom of shutting down the Albert Whitted plant before other projects were completed.

The 150 million gallons of partially treated sewage and mostly treated wastewater flowing into the bays has certainly caught the mayor's attention. And he didn't need an email to focus the mind.