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Outraged community members interrupt pier meeting, demand action on sewage

ST. PETERSBURG — As a pescatarian, Josh Lezcano says most of his diet revolves around the waters of Tampa Bay, and the food he catches from it.

But ever since it was revealed the city of St. Petersburg dumped an estimated 70 million gallons of partially treated sewage, most of it in Tampa Bay following Hurricane Hermine, the 31-year-old fisherman said he's too afraid to fish.

"That put a big dent in my protein consumption," he said. "I'm down to vegetables."

Lezcano and a small group of outraged families from St. Petersburg's Historic Old Northeast neighborhood, staged a protest Tuesday evening, interrupting a public open house the city was holding to inform residents on developments related to the new St. Petersburg Pier.

Holding signs and flanked by their young children, the group barged into the meeting room where the lead architect spoke on the new features of the pier, and demanded attention be given to the current sewage issue.

The group was met with opposition from attendants of the open house, who said they came to hear about the pier, and eventually the protesters were escorted out of the building. Still, the group contended that the focus should be on the dirty water, not pier construction.

"We need to worry about the people who live here, not just the tourists," Lezcano said.

Martha Collins, a resident of the Old Northeast for 17 years, brought her two young daughters with her to voice her concerns. One of her daughters had been learning to sail and fish, and was supposed to participate in a regatta over the weekend, but it was cancelled because of the sewage.

"I want my girls to be able to swim in clean water," Collins said.

Collins and the other parents stressed they'd like to see a timeline of when the matter will be resolved, and what the city is doing to help prevent the issue from occurring again in future storms, including bringing the Albert Whitted sewage treatment plant back online.

"It's important that we all stick together as a community, and work together as a community," she said.

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who was at the open house, said the council and Mayor Rick Kriseman hear and understand the families' frustrations, and she commended them for speaking out at the meeting.

"They have every right to be angry," Rice said. "They have every right to be here, turning up the volume and making this an urgent issue."

Rice said, despite adding storage capacity at Albert Whitted, the city knew months ago it wasn't prepared to be hit by a major storm, and that Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed the system. She said it's clear the city has to continue adding storage capacity at its Southwest treatment plant, and bring Albert Whitted back online — a move that would take a year to complete.

"Between now and then, we have to figure out what the strategies are to deal with these storms in the meanwhile," Rice said.