Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Florida Politics
  4. /
  5. The Buzz

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. [JAMAL THALJI | Times files]
Published Sep. 12

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)

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Vice President Mike Pence reacts during an immigration and naturalization ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) ALEX BRANDON  |  AP
    Katie Waldman, a former University of Florida student senator, was accused of helping discard independent student newspapers with a front-page endorsement of a rival party’s candidate. | Analysis
  2. Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday. Florida Channel
    But law enforcement officials are getting behind a “threat assessment system.”
  3. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  4. The Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach. JOE RAEDLE  |  Getty Images
    It wasn’t immediately clear how much Mar-a-Lago would charge to host the Marine Corps Birthday Ball — or even if it might do so for free.
  5. In this March 24, 2018, file photo, crowds of people participate in the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in San Francisco. JOSH EDELSON  |  AP
    ‘Guns are always a volatile topic in the halls of the legislature,’ one Republican said.
  6. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning says Fortify Florida, the new state-sponsored app that allows students to report potential threats, is "disrupting the education day" because the callers are anonymous, many of the tips are vague and there's no opportunity to get more information from tipsters. "I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education," Browning said. "I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida." JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |
    Vague and anonymous tips often waste law enforcement’s time and disrupt the school day, says Kurt Browning, president of Florida’s superintendents association.
  7. Tonight's LGBTQ Presidential Forum is hosted by Angelica Ross of FX's Pose. Twitter
    A live stream of the event and what to watch for as 10 candidates meet on stage in Iowa.
  8. In this April 11, 2018, file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.  [AP Photo | Steven Senne] STEVEN SENNE  |  AP
    "The department does not appear to have the authority to do anything.”
  9. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  10. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement