1. Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Drip, drip, drip goes St. Petersburg's sewer mess

Published Nov. 3, 2016

When you get right down to it, the job description for the mayor of any city is pretty easily defined.

There are three basic things the mayor has to do: A) maintain the roads and street lights, B) keep criminal mayhem to a minimum and C) when it rains make sure icky poo-poo water doesn't flood the city.

Everything else — fancy museums, iconic piers, parades, ribbon cuttings, inspiring speeches and stadiums — are all very nice. But they begin to take on less importance if the citizenry finds itself scraping off …, well you know, from their shoes whenever it rains and the byways turn into the Ganges River. Too nuanced?

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has found himself in a pollution pickle after an estimated 200 million gallons of partially treated and untreated sewage water poured into Tampa Bay and other waters during a spate of heavy storms in recent months. Think of this as a Whitman's Sampler of sewage.

Caught in a swirl of accusations he mishandled the situation, Kriseman started a purge of the city's wastewater treatment operation, including department officials Steve Leavitt and Tom Gibson, who have been put on unpaid leave while hizzoner attempts to squeegee his way out of the problem.

Another wastewater employee, Craven Askew, has filed for whistleblower protection. Former Public Works administrator Mike Connors has come to the defense of the disciplined workers. It's a mess of a mess.

At issue is what did Kriseman know and when did he know it? And it also depends on whom you want to believe.

The debate seems to turn on a rather prescient 2014 consultants report that raised serious concerns over the wisdom of shutting down the Albert Whitted treatment plant, which reduced the city's capability to handle massive overflows in the wake of intense storms. Kriseman and the City Council insist they never saw the 2014 report. The mayor has defended showing Leavitt and Gibson the door because he was unsatisfied with how the information was shared with him.

In any event, the buck and the muck eventually does stop at the mayor's desk.

You don't need to be legendary urban planner Robert Moses to grasp the obvious that by shutting down the Albert Whitted facility, regardless of its shortcomings, you would be increasing the risks to the city's capability to handle sewage overflows during major storm events.

The massive sewage dumps have underscored systemic problems throughout the city's roughly 900 miles of sewer pipes, some of them almost as old as St. Petersburg itself, even on days when there is no significant rainfall. That reality is based on another consultant's report detailing overflow vulnerabilities across St. Petersburg.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that finally the mayor and City Council have taken note of a consultant's study, suggesting perhaps the nearly thousand mile journey to at last addressing lingering infrastructure problems in St. Petersburg begins with a drip, drip, drip.