Fish and wildlife officers begin investigation into St. Petersburg's sewer crisis

Published Oct. 5, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has opened an investigation into St. Petersburg's sewage discharges, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

The wildlife commission is the law enforcement arm of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which recently ordered the city to fix its broken sewer system, which was overwhelmed by Hurricane Hermine last month.

"Our agency launched an investigation in support of DEP," wildlife commission spokeswoman Susan Smith said. "The FWC Division of Law Enforcement is conducting a comprehensive investigation. Once it is complete, we will release all of our findings to the public, including any information that may have been gained through subpoena."

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the DEP to investigate the city's sewage dumps and spills. Since last August, the city has discharged nearly 200 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays, as well as local waterways and watersheds.

But the DEP doesn't have the ability to pursue criminal prosecutions. For that, the state relies on the wildlife commission. Although utilities across Tampa Bay discharged sewage in the wake of Hermine, St. Petersburg's 150 million gallons was by far the most.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly and Sen. Marco Rubio have called for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to launch an investigation. So far, the federal agency said it hasn't done so.

Meanwhile, another revelation of irregularities during the tenure of former Public Works Administrator Mike Connors surfaced Tuesday.

City Council Chairwoman Amy Foster sent out a memo Tuesday that said Connors used his own system for evaluating bids, including for sewer studies and projects, that differed from other city departments. That process didn't include notes, scoring sheets or minutes of contracts awarded for water resources or engineering projects worth more than $100,000 or studies related to sewer plants, the memo said. The procurement department, which normally organizes and facilitates city purchases, wasn't part of the process, Foster said.

Although city attorneys said public records law was not violated because the meetings were recorded, Foster said she was worried that those deliberations hadn't been properly documented. The city is now starting to transcribe those bid selection meetings, she wrote.

"It's concerning to me that public business hasn't been conducted in a way that the public can easily access," she said.

Connors has declined to comment on the sewage issue.

One of the reports that wasn't part of the routine procurement process was the now highly scrutinized 2014 memo from the Tampa consulting firm Brown and Caldwell that predicted sewage problems if the Albert Whitted plant was closed — which it was last year.

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Mayor Rick Kriseman and council members say they never saw that report, which was produced while Connors was in charge of the sewer system.

Last week, Kriseman said Brown and Caldwell officials would be present at Thursday's meeting to answer questions about why that report was buried.

But Foster said it was unclear if Brown and Caldwell officials would show up. The firm is requesting private one-on-one meetings with council members in advance of the meeting. Foster said she turned that offer down.

Part of the problem in the city's sewage crisis, she said, is a lack of public trust in the city.

"Anything that could be discussed in a private meeting should be able to be discussed in a public meeting," Foster said.

Times staff writer Christopher O'Donnell contributed to this report.