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Gov. Ron DeSantis wants tougher fines for sewage spills. Is it because of St. Petersburg?

The governor says corporate and municipal polluters should pay more for their environmental crimes.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, right.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, right. [ JAMAL THALJI | Times files ]
Published Sep. 12, 2019

The fines for environmental crimes such as spilling sewage could go up in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that he wants the Florida Legislature to increase the fines levied against entities ― such as municipal governments and companies ― that spew sewage and commit other environmental violations. The governor said he wants to take a bigger “bite” out of those who, he said, haven’t taken past fines seriously.

As an example, he specifically referenced the Tampa Bay area, which has had its share of sewage incidents in recent years, most notably in St. Petersburg.

“There’s a municipality, let’s just say somewhere in, like, the Tampa Bay area,” the governor said during a news conference at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center in Naples. "And instead of dealing with the water, they just take the sewage and just dump it into Tampa Bay.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said he was not making a veiled reference to St. Petersburg’s 2015-16 sewage crisis, in which the city’s aging system discharged up to a billion gallons of wastewater into neighborhoods and waterways, and even pumped it underground.

RELATED STORY: Down the hatch: St. Petersburg has sent more than 21 million gallons of improperly treated sewage into the aquifer since 2018

The city also released up to 200 million gallons of it into the Tampa Bay itself, a state waterway.

But Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein told the Times/Herald what St. Petersburg went through is a “good one to explain the intent behind this legislation.”

That intent, according to DeSantis, is to “change the calculus” for municipalities and companies that plan to pay state fines rather than addressing infrastructure failures.

“What you end up seeing happening with some of these municipalities, it’s cheaper for them to pay a fine and spew all this sewage into the waterways because it’s the cost of doing business,” DeSantis said. “They’d rather do that than invest in the infrastructure they need to make sure the waterways surrounding them are safe and clean.”

He added: "Now you’re in a situation where that is going to bite if those laws aren’t followed.”

While municipalities’ violations were a particular point of focus for DeSantis, the proposal has broader implications. It would increase all fees for environmental violations by 50 percent. That means the penalties for everything from record-keeping mistakes to hazardous waste dumps would cost more.

More importantly, it would also allow the state to continue to impose fines against municipalities that pollute even after they stop the immediate sewage spills. It would, for example, allow the state to fine an entity until it signs a binding agreement that lays out how it will fix the underlying issues.

Under current law, once the pollutant stops flowing into the water, the fines ― $10,000 per day for sewage spills ― stop accruing, Valenstein said.

“Being able to continue to asses daily fines until we have that finality will really change the dynamic to ensure folks are going to come to the table,” Valenstein told the Times/Herald.

RELATED STORY: St. Petersburg pumped 6.6 million more gallons of dirty water into the Floridan Aquifer over the weekend

St. Petersburg leaders negotiated with state environmental officials for months before signing a 2017 consent order that required spending $326 million to upgrade St. Petersburg’s sewage system.

Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office questioned whether the governor’s remarks were actually directed at the Sunshine City.

“I would take issue with the premise: there are 67 counties and more than 200 cities around Florida dealing with infrastructure issues and wastewater challenges,” mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby said in an email. “You can find them all listed on the Florida DEP website.”

Kriseman’s office declined to comment on the governor’s announcement itself, and whether it would change how the city handles future spills. The office of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor did not return a request for comment on the governor’s proposal.

DeSantis’ announcement drew a mixed reaction from environmentalists. Michelle Allen, senior Florida organizer for Food and Water Watch, called it the “wrong approach” because it would simply increase a penalty rather than provide violators with more support.

“I don’t think the municipalities need harsher fines," she said. "There’s a reason these things are happening: It’s because they don’t have the funding to update the infrastructure.”

In fact, the state report into St. Petersburg’s spills criticized two decades of city leadership for failing to invest in its wastewater system. It also specifically criticized the Kriseman administration for closing one of the city’s four sewage plants before the crisis, then for poor decision-making during the crisis.

RELATED STORY: Rick Kriseman tapped to lead peer environmental committee

But Kimberly Mitchell, the executive director of the Everglades Trust, said this announcement is a signal that both polluters and the enforcers within state government are going to “straighten up.”

“Nobody before (DeSantis) has ever been willing to look at this comprehensively from 30,000-foot level and six-foot level and that’s what he’s doing to start pushing us in a smarter direction.”

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times Coverage: St. Petersburg’s Sewage Crisis

Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

St. Pete sewer plant operator seeks whistleblower protections, saying city knew it shouldn't shutter Albert Whitted plant (Sept. 16, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg’s sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill (July 21, 2017)

Rick Kriseman’s administration lashed in St. Pete sewage report (July 22, 2017)

Latest sewage crisis fallout: Higher utility bills in St. Pete (July 27, 2017)

No criminal charges in St. Pete’s 1 billion gallon sewage crisis (Oct. 27, 2017)

Utility bills will rise for St. Pete residents — and keep rising (Nov. 9, 2017)

Game of Rates: Will St. Pete raise reclaimed water bills? (Dec. 4, 2017)