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Sewage would still have spilled, but St. Pete decisions made it worse, state says

ST. PETERSBURG — The city still would have discharged sewage into Tampa Bay during the past two summers even if it hadn't shuttered a waterfront sewage plant near downtown.

But having the plant available would have reduced the spills, a state investigation concluded.

The report also found a lack of cohesion among sewer officials. It revealed that none of the city's chief sewer plant operators agreed with the decision to close the Albert Whitted plant.

The plant was closed in April 2015 to save money on upkeep even though work on a replacement has not been completed.

St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster, who has pushed for more transparency on sewer issues, said the report illustrates a "culture of secrecy."

"The fact that not one single plant operator thinks it's a good idea to close Albert Whitted and no one listened? That's concerning," she said.

The city's former engineering director, Tom Gibson, told state investigators that nearly a decade of tight budgets had influenced the decision to close the plant. Gibson was demoted by Mayor Rick Kriseman for his role in the sewer mess.

Much of the state Department of Environmental Protection's investigation, released Tuesday, is familiar ground to those who have followed the city's sewer crisis. Since August 2015, the city has experienced a series of heavy storms that have prompted it to discharge about 200 million gallons of sewage into local watersheds and waterways, including Tampa Bay.

The recommendations can be read as a more detailed supplemental document to a consent order currently being finalized between the DEP and the city. That order calls for more than $800,000 in fines or for the city to fast-track work to lessen the chance of future discharges.

"It's a lot more detailed than we could put into the consent order," said DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.

The city is already implementing many of the recommendations. They include digging new injection wells to dispose of treated sewage during major storms, expanding the capacity of the city's three sewage plants and developing a master plan to prevent future problems.

Kriseman has proposed a $304 million plan to resolve the crisis that has stained the city's reputation. In 2016, St. Petersburg was responsible for 51 percent of all sewer overflows in Florida, according to a DEP tally.

Public Works spokesman Bill Logan said the city welcomed the report.

"We're happy to have DEP looking into what happened, uncovering the truth and getting the city back to where we need to be," he said.