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St. Petersburg City Council demands answers on sewage dumps

ST. PETERSBURG — Two weeks after St. Petersburg dumped millions of gallons of sewage into Boca Ciega and Tampa bays following days of heavy rains, City Council members demanded answers from wastewater officials, calling for an independent review and more accountability.

But after an hour of debate on Thursday, the council voted to defer further deliberation on the issue until a committee meeting Thursday.

Members also voted to delay funding for a project at the city's southwest treatment plant near Eckerd College that would allow it to accept treated waste from around the city. The project has drawn criticism from nearby residents and raised concern about whether it will further tax the plant's capacity.

Before the council meeting, Mayor Rick Kriseman defended the performance of the city's sewer system, saying St. Petersburg did better than most neighboring cities, including Tampa.

"Not to throw Tampa under the bus, but … they're going to spend a lot of money on their infrastructure because they haven't been doing what we've been doing for a number of years," Kriseman said. "We didn't have raw sewage and fecal matter floating down our streets and into people's homes like cities all around us. We're in a lot better shape."

Some council members agreed.

"Let's keep a sense of perspective. It wasn't as bad as what happened next door," said Darden Rice.

Water resources director Steve Leavitt apologized for the discharges, but noted the rains that began on July 24 were part of a historic weather event.

"We can't sign an agreement with Mother Nature," Leavitt said. "There is no way we can guarantee this event won't happen again."

The city's sewer system, which can hold 56-million gallons of sewage, was overwhelmed with prolonged heavy rains earlier this month, forcing the city to dump more than 16 million gallons into Boca Ciega and Tampa bays. The biggest discharge, which flowed into Boca Ciega Bay on Aug. 5, was untreated. A smaller release into Tampa Bay, beginning Aug. 9, was partially treated. At its peak, the system was swamped with 80 million gallons, city officials said.

Leavitt and Kriseman said expanding the southwest plant with a 15-million-gallon storage tank, a project currently under way, and reopening the shuttered Albert Whitted plant would help reduce future discharges.

Council member Steve Kornell said the city's performance was unacceptable. He called for an independent audit of the wastewater system and a halt to plans to ship more waste to the southwest plant.

"This is unacceptable. There is no excuse," Kornell said.

His colleague Karl Nurse also asked for the city to study if its infrastructure was up to the demands of another major weather event, while acknowledging that unusually heavy rains have strained drainage systems throughout the region.

"At this point, if we got a hurricane, virtually all the cities would have to dump raw sewage," Nurse said.

The city closed its sewage treatment plant next to Albert Whitted Airport in April. Previously, public works administrator Mike Connors argued that it wasn't needed and that the southwest plant could handle the extra flow. Leavitt said Thursday he couldn't "definitively say" if that closure hindered the city's ability to handle the sewage.

That answer didn't satisfy council member Wengay Newton, who said the city chose to "take downtown sewage and pump it south.'

On Thursday, several Gulfport residents asked St. Petersburg council members to sign an interlocal agreement to ban future dumps into Clam Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay.

"It's not okay with me to have my city be a dumping ground," said Amy Oatley.

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

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