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  1. St. Petersburg

Latest wastewater spills earn St. Petersburg a $25,000 fine from the state

DIRK SHADD | Times Previous sewage spills closed beaches in St. Petersburg. While recent spills were less severe, they violated a consent order.
Published Dec. 31, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — A recent string of wastewater discharges in the city has a price tag: $25,000.

That's the amount the city was fined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for 18 spills between Oct. 13 and Dec. 18, totaling 300,955 gallons, according to a letter sent to Mayor Rick Kriseman on Dec. 26 by the state agency.

Most of the discharges were small and were overwhelmingly of reclaimed water, which is sewage cleaned to a high level and used to irrigate lawns and other grassy areas. But all of the discharges are illegal under state law and violate the city's 2017 consent order with the state for the approximately 1 billion gallons of sewage dumped into Tampa Bay, spilled into the streets of West St. Petersburg and the waters of Boca Ciega Bay and pumped deep into the aquifer.

The city's sewage crisis began in 2015 with untreated sewage discharges into Clam Bayou after weeks of heavy summer rain and worsened during 2016 when the city released hundreds of millions of gallons of partially-treated sewage into the city's waterways and streets.

In 2016, the state found the Sunshine City had discharged more than half of all sewage spilled in Florida, including areas more seriously impacted by tropical storms and hurricanes.

The next year, after state and federal probes, the state and city negotiated a $326 million remedy in the form of the consent order, which requires the state's fifth-largest city to fix its leaky pipes and sewage infrastructure.

The latest spills violated that agreement and triggered the fine, according to the DEP letter.

Public Works spokesman Bill Logan could not be reached for comment Monday. DEP offices were closed for the New Year's holiday.

It's unclear the city has also been fined for a spill of 1.7 million gallons over a period of 50 days in August and September when wastewater was inadvertently dumped into a nearby pond at Walter Fuller Park before the state was notified of the accident.

Last month, city officials said they were revamping their protocols to alert the public about wastewater spills. Before a recent Tampa Bay Times report, the city had ceased notifying the public when spills didn't leave the grounds of one of its three sewage plants.

On the City Council agenda for its Thursday meeting is an administration proposal to require contractors — responsible for many of the recent spills — to pay future fines from any violation of the consent order and prepare a corrective action plan to prevent spills.

Council member Steve Kornell posted the proposal on his Facebook page Sunday night, pledging to vote for it.

"I really like that it requires a written plan on how they will prevent the same issue from happening again," Kornell wrote.

Maria Scruggs, the local NAACP branch president, said the continuing spills concern her and threaten the city's black community.

"We are specifically concerned about the impact on the African communities as a result of the environmental atrocities that have historically occurred and continue to occur within the African community. The fact that the impact never appears to rise to any real levels of concern until it is too late is again our greatest fear. The frequency of the discharges over a two-month period suggests that Mayor Kriseman and his administration have accepted these discharges and the fines associated with them as a way of doing business," Scruggs wrote in email Sunday.

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

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