In his state of the city speech, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised better communication with the public about the city's ongoing sewage crisis. Within hours, the mayor violated his own pledge by asserting that more than 100 million gallons of sewage spewed into Tampa Bay last year caused no environmental damage. Such broad declarations that are at odds with reality are the very reason the sewer issue has eroded confidence in City Hall.
Kriseman acknowledged in Saturday's speech that the aging, inadequate sewer system is one of the central challenges for the city in the year ahead. Leaky pipes and diminished processing capacity, combined with an unusually heavy rainy season in 2016 led to discharges of more than 200 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay and other watersheds. In his speech, Kriseman did not mince words, saying that fixing the system is his responsibility. He promised hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades. And he said, "Too often, we've had a problem communicating the problem. That can't and won't continue."
Yet later Saturday, Kriseman claimed that the sewage did no damage to Tampa Bay and did not jeopardize the public health. "I'm not aware of any report indicating short- or long-term damage," he told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Charlie Frago. If there's no harm, then why the need for strong words and swift action? Kriseman's answer: The discharges were in violation of state and federal regulations. But those regulations exist to protect the environment and public health. They're there for a reason, not for looks.
The findings of some local scientists conflict with the mayor's claims of "no harm, no foul." A USF researcher testing water samples from the shore of Tampa Bay near Lassing Park found antibiotic-resistant bacteria after last summer's discharges. An Eckerd College biologist determined that a salmonella strain commonly contained in sewage killed 48 fledgling black skimmers in Boca Ciega Bay within days of dumps in Gulfport and a 58 million-gallon spill at St. Petersburg's Northwest plant. In the mayor's view, that must have been just an unfortunate coincidence.
St. Petersburg also posted no swimming signs at some beaches following discharges until its own bacteria monitoring showed safe levels. Perhaps most unbelievable was Kriseman's statement absolving his city's discharges while leaving room that overflows from other communities could have polluted the bay. It doesn't take a science degree to see the folly in that.
This is not the first time the mayor made a bold statement on the sewer crisis that did not match reality. In September, after the Times reported a spill at the Northwest treatment plant that City Council members had not been told about, Kriseman insisted for more than a week that the sewage that spilled into west St. Petersburg neighborhoods was essentially what residents sprinkle on their lawns: reclaimed water. The mayor finally acknowledged it turned out to be partially treated sewage that flowed across 22nd Avenue N to Azalea Middle School.
Kriseman is right that the overall health of Tampa Bay is good. Florida's largest open water estuary has rebounded from the damage caused by commercial dredging, polluted runoff and sewage dumps from decades ago. Last year, scientists reported there were more acres of seagrass beds in Tampa Bay than since the 1950s. But that isn't an opening for complacency or an excuse to brush off the impact of 100 million gallons of sewage.
The mayor has just filed to run for re-election this year. He should be mindful that every time he makes a broad declaration about the sewage crisis that is at odds with what voters saw and smelled, he raises doubts about what else he is telling them.