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Wastewater law could cost city some industry

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The orders from Washington were clear: St. Petersburg and other municipalities would have to do a better job making sure industry didn't release toxic substances into municipal sewers. The mandates, though, weren't so explicit about another matter all too important during these times of fiscal austerity: how to pay for it.

On one hand, the city's philosophy is to force those who create the wastewater problem, rather than taxpayers, pay for the solution.

But city officials worry if they make industry pay the entire cost of the expensive requirements, the city might scare off tax-generating businesses looking to relocate within city limits.

Worse still, the costs _ which could run $2,000 a month for a single business _ could chase away some businesses already established in St. Petersburg.

Thirty of the city's largest industries, hospitals, seafood processors and printing companies, including the St. Petersburg Times, would be affected.

It's important to control the substances industries release, city officials said, because they could damage the city's four wastewater treatment plants or contaminate the sludge generated at the plants, making disposal more difficult and expensive.

City administrators are treading cautiously with these orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

City Council members decided last week to ask the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce to solicit comment from industry representatives. Each of the businesses will get a letter about the proposed ordinance incorporating the regulations.

One thing is certain: The city must follow the letter of the law. That means closer monitoring and analysis of the water industry discharges, more reports to write and more detailed records.

To do that, the city must hire three specialists in addition to the two it has. The cost of the city's industrial pretreatment program will rise from $150,000 to $230,000, said Bill Hargett Jr., deputy city manager for public works.

The city's 80,000 sewer customers now pick up most of the cost of the pretreatment program, paying about $2 each a year for it, Hargett said.

The city's policy in recent years has been to apportion costs to those who create them. But City Council members flinched when they saw what the policy would cost businesses in the industrial pretreatment program.

If the city passed the total cost to industry, St. Anthony's Hospital would pay $2,121.95 a month. E-Systems ECI Division, a defense contractor employing 2,500 people, would get socked with a bill of $2,980.95 a month.

"I think even for a company that size, the increase is significant," Vice Mayor Robert Stewart said at a recent City Council meeting after hearing of what E-Systems would pay.

E-Systems, which does a lot of electroplating and uses various heavy metals in its work, would pay more per gallon to dispose of liquid waste than a hospital or a printing plant. That's because the byproducts are more concentrated or are considered more dangerous.

Executives at E-Systems issued a statement after learning of the proposed ordinance. It says the company already spends about $10,000 a year to follow federal regulations on monitoring its disposable liquid waste. That money goes for test fees, labor and reporting.

"To be assessed an additional $36,000 a year from the city is of concern to us and would be a factor in considering any future expansion and possibly even in maintaining our current facilities," according to the statement.

Dick Monroe, an Orlando-based spokesman for Red Lobster, said ultimately the consumer will pay for the increased regulation. Red Lobster would face a bill of $1,662.78 each month if businesses paid the entire cost of the program.

"The easiest out is assessing the costs on businesses because businesses don't vote," Monroe said. "But ultimately, everybody pays for it. The question is, what is the most equitable way to distribute the cost of this."

City administrators are worried other municipalities in the area will charge less for their programs than St. Petersburg, putting the city at a competitive disadvantage at a time when city officials are trying to entice industry and jobs to the city.

Although city officials are not sure about the amount industries will be assessed, they are sure industries will have to pay for at least the $80,000 increase attributable to the latest regulations.

The city does not have money in its public works budget to meet the new requirements, which took effect in August, said John Parnell, the city's industrial pretreatment coordinator.

Besides the report from the Chamber of Commerce, the city also will hold a public hearing on the matter before council members decide anything.

"It's for us to find an equitable funding solution," Parnell said. "We don't want to drive the industries out of town. That's not the idea."

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