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Rick Kriseman's administration lashed in St. Pete sewage report

Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people in September 2016 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system. St. Petersburg dumped up to 200 million gallons of sewage over 13 months from 2015-16. A new state report blames much of the crisis on mistakes made by the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman, but also critcizes past administrations. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Jul. 22, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A state report places much of the blame for the city's 200-million gallon sewage spill crisis on the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The 7-page draft report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, does not name Kriseman or any of his staff. It also starts with the long view, blaming two decades of city leadership for setting the stage for St. Petersburg's massive sewage problems.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

Then the report quickly zooms in on the recent crisis and the mistakes, indifference and neglect that sparked it, exacerbated it and prevented City Hall from making a course correction while millions of gallons of sewage spewed into neighborhoods and waterways.

"(St. Petersburg's) leadership has had a culture of being willfully and negligently indifferent toward known problems in its waste water treatment system that ultimately lead to some of the largest wastewater discharges in State history," wrote FWC investigator Ammon Fisher.

This is the report that Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe used when he recently decided that no city officials should face criminal charges in the sewage mess.

But its real impact will be felt amidst a brutal mayoral election pitting Kriseman against former Mayor Rick Baker, who has heavily criticized his foe's handling of the crisis.

The report is especially scathing in assessing the Kriseman administration's 2015 decision to shut down the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility — and then the mayor's failure to reopen the plant to alleviate the sewage spills as the crisis raged.

Kriseman texted this statement to the Times late Friday.

"I reviewed the investigator's report, and given that the State Attorney has closed the case, I have no further comment on it other than to say that I am looking forward to doing what the report noted hadn't been done in 20 years, addressing inflow, infiltration and capacity in a meaningful way."

The Baker campaign texted this statement on behalf of its candidate:

"The news is devastating. This report confirms that Kriseman's closing of Albert Whitted plant caused the 2015 spill, that failure to reopen the plant after the spill was an inexcusable and tragic mistake that Kriseman gambled on our safety — and lost. It is past time to accept responsibility."

Baker is also not named in the report. But it also blames his mayoral administration from 2001-10 and others for not doing enough to fix leaky pipes that contributed to the city's sewage problems.

One sewage issue that Baker keeps hammering Kriseman on is the closure of the Albert Whitted sewage plant. It was City Council that actually voted to close it in 2011.

But the report said the Kriseman administration's decision to carry out that plan in 2015 without upgrading capacity at the city's other three sewage plant "was essentially a gamble that they would not have a wet weather event."

Instead, a tropical storm and a hurricane lashed the city.

After the heavy rains of August 2015 led to the first spills, the report criticized the mayor for choosing not to reopen Albert Whitted.

The mayor's office also claimed then those rains were a "historic" and "unprecedented" and a "100 year event."

"These claims are not based in fact or reality," the investigator wrote.

The FWC report also dismissed talk that any of the city's many sewage problems were adequately repaired in the past. That passage does not name Baker, but dovetails with statements he has made on the campaign trail.

"Claims made by others that they thought the system was fixed and therefore did not need to worry about it," the report said, "were not based in fact."

The report also takes a dim view of the city's longtime sewage practices, such as pumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of partially-treated sewage hundreds of feet in the ground through injection wells during emergencies.

"The city appears to follow a theme of 'out of sight, out of mind' when it comes to injection of wastewater," the report said. "This blatant disregard for the Clean Water Act is putting our ground water at risk."

The City Council voted Thursday to approve a consent order with the state, pledging to spend $326 million to fix its sewage system. The city and McCabe's staff both noted that agreement as a reason why criminal charges were not filed. The draft report doesn't levy specific charges against individuals, but instead lists multiple violations of state law by the city.

The FWC investigation is ongoing, however. Executive director Nick Wiley said a final report should be filed with the State's Attorney's Office by the end of next week.

So if the inquiry is still active, why has McCabe already decided not to file charges?

"I'm relying on the memo," the county's top prosecutor said Friday. "If they have something else they've come across, we'll take a look at it."

It's not just the Kriseman and Baker administrations that were criticized in the report. No one who has served in City Hall in recent years was spared:

"These were willful and negligent acts that could have been avoided or at least significantly mitigated had the city taken action 20 years ago."

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

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)

http://www.tampabay.com/news/st-petersburg-mayor-rick-kriseman-fires-one-official-demotes-another-over/2307007 (Dec. 20, 2016)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)

St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill (July 21, 2017)

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