ST. PETERSBURG — Last week the City Council learned no criminal charges would result from the up to 200 million gallons of sewage St. Petersburg's sewer system released from 2015-16.
Then on Thursday evening the council unanimously approved a consent order with the state that requires the city to spend $326 million to fix its ailing sewer system.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection slapped the city with the penalty in response to the sewage failures of 2015-16. Council had been scheduled to approve the order at last week's meeting, but tabled it when certain members expressed hesistation about agreeing to the order without knowing how the city will pay for it.
That was still a concern Thursday.
"I'm troubled with some parts of this," City Council member Ed Montanari said, "including the $326 million cost that goes along with this consent order that we need to approve but (without) having the finance plan attached to that."
Most of the $326 million will be spent on improvements to the system's infrastructure over the next several years. It also includes an $810,000 fine levied by the state which the city will be put toward anti-polluation programs.
"Rather than feeding this money back to the DEP, they're saying 'Why don't you take this money and put it back to your own community," said Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley.
The city will have to produce a master plan for the projects included in the order by December 2019. The city is hoping to have a project manager to oversee the master plan in place by August, Tankersley said.
Most of the projects included in the plan, including injection wells, filters, raintrays, manhole liners and a lining of collection system, are already underway, Tankersley said. The city is currently spending $66 million on ongoing projects and has $159 million budgeted for projects in the next five years.
Just this week, City Attorney Joseph Patner announced that the state said it would not be pursuing any criminal charges in relation to the sewage crisis. The city is still facing a federal lawsuit from a coalition of environmental groups, which allege that the city violated the Clean Water Act. The city hired a Tampa firm to handle the suit.
While the city has already been taking steps in the right direction, progress has been dogged by further failure. Just a day after Mayor Rick Kriseman touted improvements to the Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College, the plant suffered a 50,000 gallon spill as a result of increased waterflow from heavy rainfall and construction difficulties.
If the Penny for Pinellas sales tax referendum passes in the fall, the city could gain $90 million to put toward the order over the next 10 years. The rest could be covered by hikes in utility rates, money that was set aside in the budget for future sewage issues or loans, if necessary.
"I think this maps out our plan to fix the crisis," said Council member Darden Rice. "It's important because it legally binds us into doing what we say we're going to do."