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St. Petersburg City Council mulls wastewater problems

St. Petersburg City Council members demanded more information from the city's wastewater system Thursday, calling for an independent review and demanding accountability from the city's water resources department.

But in the end, the council voted to discuss the issue further at a committee meeting next week. They also voted to delay funding for a biosolid project at the city's Southwest Treatment plant. That project brings treated waste to that plant from around the city.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rick Kriseman defended the performance of his city's sewers, saying St. Petersburg peformed better than most neighboring cities, including Tampa.

Some council members agreed.

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

Rice did request an explanation of why city staff had rejected a redistribution pump system, which it now wants, among other information.

Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt apologized for the discharges, but noted it was a historic weather event.

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

Leavitt and Kriseman said the expansion of the Southwest plant with a 15-million-gallon storage tank and reopening the shuttered Albert Whitted plant would help mitigate 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 a biosolid project at the Southwest plant that delivers treated sludge to the plant from around the city.

"This is unacceptable. There is no excuse," Kornell said. "We are not a seamless city."

His colleague Karl Nurse also asked for the city to study if it's infrastructure was up to the demands of another major weather event.

"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. Leavitt said Thursday he couldn't "definitively say" if that worsened the dumpings.

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

The city's 56-million-gallon capacity sewer system 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, was raw. A smaller release into Tampa Bay the following week was partially treated. At its peak, the system was inundated with 80-million-gallons, city officials said.

Earlier Thursday, Kriseman said he thought his city had perfromed better than most, 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," the mayor said after unveiling a sustainability initiative to a city council committee. "We're ahead of the game from so many other cities in the state. 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," Kriseman said.

On Thursday, Gulfport residents asked the the city 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.

Chairman Charlie Gerdes said the dumpings were an embarassment to the city.

"We're all disgraced. Nobody feels good about it," Gerdes said.

The council voted to discuss the wastewater issues at the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee on Aug. 27. They agreed to discuss the biosolid project further on Sept. 3.