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Kriseman scoffs at Foster's claim that sewage dumps hurt Tampa Bay, endangered public health

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speaks during the State of the city address Saturday, January 14, 2017 at the Palladium theater in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speaks during the State of the city address Saturday, January 14, 2017 at the Palladium theater in St. Petersburg.
Published Jan. 15, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Hours after Mayor Rick Kriseman took full responsibility for the city's sewage crisis, he told the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday that more than 100 million gallons of sewage dumped into Tampa Bay had done no environmental harm or risked public health.

Saying he put his faith in science, Kriseman said no evidence exists that shows the city's dumping hurt marine life, damaged sea grass or spread dangerous bacteria.

"I'm not aware of any report indicating short- or long-term damage. No reports of any fish kills or algae blooms," Kriseman said Saturday afternoon, about four hours after concluding his annual state of the city address.

In that address, he vowed to solve the crisis, which totaled about 200 million gallons dumped or spilled into local waterways. He said he took full responsibility for the crisis, which has led to a pending state consent order and probes by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But then the Times contacted former Mayor Bill Foster for his reaction to Kriseman's speech. Foster asserted that the mayor had "damaged the bay."

Foster's comments prompted the mayor's aides to action. Kriseman is up for re-election this year, and Foster, a Republican defeated by Kriseman in 2013, is thought to be a potential opponent.

Kriseman pointed to a 2016 study by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and other groups that he said showed the bay was healthy.

"The bay is in good health," he said.

The scientists for that study couldn't be reached for comment Saturday.

But other scientists and environmental advocates were flabbergasted by the mayor's comments.

"It doesn't seem accurate to say there was no evidence that no damage was done to the bay or that the public wasn't at risk. The city's own testing shows that there was," said Suzanne Young, a University of South Florida doctoral candidate who tested the waters of Tampa Bay after last summer's discharges and said she found troubling evidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Those preliminary results couldn't be confirmed, but Young said ample evidence exists that sewage discharges are dangerous.

Kriseman also said there had been no risk to public health, even though city beaches were closed after the dumping.

"I'm not aware of any study or evidence that said the city of St. Petersburg endangered public health," the mayor said.

Lorraine Margeson, an environmental activist, greeted that statement with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. She pointed to bird die-offs and several unusual red tide occurrences.

"How can any reasonable person personally pose that this doesn't damage the bay?" Margeson asked.

Elizabeth Forys, an Eckerd College conservation biologist and expert in beach-nesting birds, said her scientific study left little doubt that sewage killed 48 fledgling black skimmers in Boca Ciega Bay — dying within days of dumps in Gulfport and a 58 million-gallon spill at St. Petersburg's Northwest plant.

"That surprises me," Forys said when informed of Kriseman's comments. "I guess there is no way to definitively prove it."

State and national laboratories confirmed that all the chicks died from the same strain of salmonella bacteria commonly associated with sewage, she said.

She never called the mayor's office to personally inform Kriseman of her findings, Forys said. Her findings were reported more than once in the Times.

"I guess I assumed he read the newspaper," Forys said.

Kriseman said he could only say that St. Petersburg's sewage discharges didn't hurt the environment but he couldn't say the same about other entities like Gulfport, Largo, Pinellas County or Clearwater, which also had overflows. Those governmental bodies' sewage may have harmed the environment or risked public health, he said.

Margeson scoffed at the mayor's reasoning.

"Who can say what part of your waste went where?" she asked.

If the massive spills and dumps didn't damage the waterways or put residents' health at risk, why was there such concern — both at the state and federal level and among residents?

"Well , for one thing, we violated DEP rules," Kriseman said, referring to state Department of Environmental Protection regulations against sewage discharges.

Why are the rules in place?

"If you discharged every day, eventually you would have problems," the mayor responded.

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