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Environmental groups threaten to sue St. Petersburg over sewage crisis

A coalition of environmental groups notified the St. Petersburg on Thursday that they intended to sue to force St. Petersburg to clean up its sewage mess. Also on Thursday, Mayor Rick Kriseman added intrigue to the mystery of why council members never saw a 2014 study that warned of the sewage problems that could befall the city if it closed the waterfront Albert Whitted sewer plant. One of its 750,000 gallon structure, called a clarifier, is seen here. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
A coalition of environmental groups notified the St. Petersburg on Thursday that they intended to sue to force St. Petersburg to clean up its sewage mess. Also on Thursday, Mayor Rick Kriseman added intrigue to the mystery of why council members never saw a 2014 study that warned of the sewage problems that could befall the city if it closed the waterfront Albert Whitted sewer plant. One of its 750,000 gallon structure, called a clarifier, is seen here. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sep. 30, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of environmental groups notified the city Thursday that they intend to sue to force St. Peterburg to clean up its sewage mess.

The intent to sue notice, filed by three nonprofits, says St. Petersburg has 60 days to convince them that it is serious about avoiding future sewage spills and dumps. If not, they will file a lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to force the city's compliance under the Clean Water Act.

A Sarasota nonprofit, Suncoast Waterkeeper, and two California-based organizations, Our Children's Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation, notified the city of its intent to sue if the city didn't present a solution to the crisis within 60 days.

The groups say that legal action and oversight have proven critical in other environmentally damaging situations. St. Petersburg environmental advocate Lorraine Margeson agreed.

"Frankly, this needed to happen in order to force government into real action with real investments and on a much faster schedule than planned," Margeson said. "We cannot despoil our bay like this again. …

"The time for excuses is over, the time for action is now."

Joseph Patner, the city's head of litigation, said the city just received the notification and was evaluating its next step. A legal response will be issued at the appropriate time, he said

Meanwhile, Mayor Rick Kriseman added intrigue to the mystery of why council members never saw a 2014 study that warned of the sewage problems that could befall the city if it closed a waterfront sewer plant. That's exactly what happened when Hurricane Hermine passed by earlier this month. Its drenching rains swamped the city's aging sewer system and caused about 150 million gallons of sewage to be released.

Addressing City Council members on Thursday, Kriseman said Brown and Caldwell, the Tampa engineering firm that conducted the study, included references to the study first exposed by whistle-blower Craven Askew in a draft version of an August 2015 presentation to the City Council.

But all references to the study — which stated that heavy flows would likely disable the Southwest sewage plant, which was supposed to replace the capacity lost when the Albert Whitted plant was closed earlier that year — were removed in the final version presented to the council.

"That raises some serious questions to me," Kriseman told City Council members.

The mayor said Brown and Caldwell representatives would be at next Thursday's meeting to answer questions about why they removed references to the study and did not refer to it when council members queried sewer officials about the effects of closing Albert Whitted.

"Those are answers I think we all need to know," Kriseman said.

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A state investigation ordered by Gov. Rick Scott is already under way. The city is undertaking its own inquiry, which council members also discussed Thursday. And two members of Florida's congressional delegation — Republicans Marco Rubio and David Jolly — asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to also look into who is responsible for the city's release of nearly 200 million gallons of sewage into local waterways since August 2015.

Brown and Caldwell did not return requests for comment. Kriseman said company officials told his administration that they don't have any documents that would explain the discrepancy between the draft and final versions of their council report.

"Maybe between now and then (next week's meeting), something will jog their memory," Kriseman said.

The firm is already involved in the ongoing expansion of the Southwest plant. Some council members questioned whether that work should continue.

Council member Steven Kornell said the firm's work on a related project at the Southwest plant that turns waste into energy, some of which will power city sanitation trucks, should stop.

"I think this brings that into question," Kornell said. "We need to look at this biosolids project."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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