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As sewage dumping ends, Kriseman reverses course on BP money

“The administration is absolutely committed to addressing this issue. We’re in the same place as you as far as this being a priority.”
Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg mayor
Published Jun. 10, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — By late Thursday, the city had pumped nearly 10 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay — five times initial estimates.

The pumping stopped about 3 p.m., ending a two-day wastewater emergency caused by Tropical Storm Colin. It could take days to assess the damage.

City tests showed bacteria levels in what was dumped into Tampa Bay to be 60 times above what environmental standards consider safe, according to the city's public works administrator, Claude Tankersley.

Facing mounting criticism from residents, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Thursday afternoon that he was ending an eight-month standoff with the City Council over how to spend nearly $6 million in BP settlement money. Some council members wanted to spend it on sewer repair. Until Thursday, Kriseman resisted, opting for bike share, tree plantings and a ferry.

"The administration is absolutely committed to addressing this issue," Kriseman told council members in explaining his reversal. "We're in the same place as you as far as this being a priority."

Kriseman said he would support whatever the City Council wanted to do with the BP money. One idea, by council member Karl Nurse, is to spend $3 million to repair leaky pipes. Kriseman prefers to increase capacity at the city's three sewage plants, a costlier long-term fix.

He also scrapped plans to convert a former sewer plant on the downtown waterfront to a fish farm. The shuttered Albert Whitted plant's tanks proved crucial as emergency storage for an overwhelmed sewer system.

Previous mayors, Kriseman said, were to blame for just spending enough on the city's sewer system to "keep our heads above water".

"We know we're going to have to do better than that. That's just not going to cut it anymore," Kriseman said.

After the meeting, Kriseman excused his predecessor, Bill Foster, saying the severe recession tied that mayor's hands. But he stood his ground regarding the culpability of Rick Baker, who served from 2001 to 2010 and is rumored to be considering a run against Kriseman next year.

"My recollection is that council and I spent $200-$300 million on water and sewer capital projects," Baker texted the Times late Thursday. "And I know that we replaced sewer pipes throughout the city. That is a substantial investment."

Tankersley and Water Resources director Steve Leavitt said that any substantial repairs are at least a year away, probably two.

"We didn't get here overnight," Kriseman said after the meeting. "We're not going to fix it overnight."

About 10 months have passed since three weeks of heavy rain forced 31.5 million gallons of untreated and partially-treated sewage to be spilled or dumped into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays.

Kriseman said he wouldn't have done anything differently between then and now. He said an initial study on potential fixes was a "huge step" and said he didn't want to throw money at the problem.

Several council members praised city staff's performance, especially its communication efforts.

Council chairwoman Amy Foster said they are "working really hard to be transparent on this issue."

Yet city officials initially resisted requests to release how many gallons of sewage was being dumped, saying there was no public record. They also spent much time on semantics, insisting on the phone with reporters and on their Twitter feeds that the discharge be called "very diluted wastewater."

As Kriseman tried to mop up the aftermath, Republican State Rep. Kathleen Peters — facing a re-election battle — called for an investigation.

She said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection should review if the city has maintained its sewer system adequately to determine if a "potential environmental and health disaster" looms.

Kriseman, a Democrat, shot back in a statement that Peters represents the beach towns, Gulfport, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, whose sewage is processed by St. Petersburg.

Those towns added to the problem and he would "welcome her leadership" in finding state money to pay for the fix.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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