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St. Petersburg wants answers on dropped Swiftmud lawsuit

Published Feb. 26, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The Southwest Florida Water Management District's decision to drop a lawsuit against a Pinellas Park gun club for lead pollution near a city water main sparked a strong reaction Thursday from the St. Petersburg City Council.

The city has relied on the state agency, commonly referred to as Swiftmud, to protect its interests, said several City Council members.

"Will Swiftmud report back to us and let us know why we should feel comfortable with their actions?" council member Jim Kennedy asked at a meeting to review the March 3 meeting agenda.

The water district's board dropped the suit against the Skyway Skeet & Trap Club earlier this week without discussion. Board members, who passed the measure unanimously, declined comment on why they ended the suit filed last year.

Lead from shot and bullets have contaminated Sawgrass Lake and a city water main runs through land where the gun range lead has fallen during the club's 70-year history.

City water officials have said that St. Petersburg's water supply is safe, but a small band of residents have claimed it is vulnerable to lead contamination. Their concerns have been aired through local media.

The issue has gained local traction with the recent national attention focused on lead contamination in the water supply in Flint, Mich.

City officials said they are prepared to do additional residential testing for lead.

Newly hired public works administrator Claude Tankersley said it would cost about $20,000 to conduct the tests in 50 homes scattered across the city. Those homes are tested every three years, per federal mandate, and weren't scheduled to be tested until 2017.

Since 2003, only two homes have shown elevated lead level. One of those tested normally a few months later. Earlier this month, the city also presented tests which showed no elevated levels of lead near its water line.

The city has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to check into the situation, but the federal agency deferred to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, said assistant city attorney Kim Streeter.

"And they called Marion," quipped council member Charlie Gerdes, referring to powerful Tallahassee gun-rights lobbyist Marion Hammer, who recently called for Swiftmud's dissolution.

Hammer has said the agency's decision to sue the Skyway gun club violated a 2004 law banning any state agency from suing a gun range.

Council members also asked city staff to search for proof that the city had removed contaminated soil around its water line and replaced it with clean soil.

That proof would calm worried residents, they said.

"It would bring peace of mind," said Kennedy. "It's worth it."

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