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St. Pete closes emergency operations center; Pinellas EOC remains open

St. Petersburg closed its emergency operations center, opened to handle issues related to Hurricane Matthew, at 9 a.m. Friday.

No significant damage was reported, St. Petersburg officials said, although one downed tree branch briefly blocked traffic on 4th Street South at 59th Avenue. Wind speeds stayed between 18 mph and 26 mph overnight, with gusts reaching 33 mph, they said. Seven people spent the night at the shelter at Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N.

St. Petersburg officials said the city forecast is calling for 1 inch of rain and breezy conditions. Strong rip currents expected for the next few days. There is possibly a higher-than-normal high tide expected for later today, although no street flooding is anticipated unless the city gets heavier rainfall than expected.

Pinellas County officials continue to closely monitor Hurricane Matthew for potential impacts to the area. The county’s emergency operations center and citizens’ information center both remain open, as do all county government offices. Residents can call the citizens’ information center at 727-464-4333 for general information.

The National Weather Service is forecasting sustained winds of 25 mph to 35 mph and occasional storm bands with 40 mph to 45 mph wind gusts, similar to summer thunderstorms, to impact Pinellas County until noon. There is a high risk of rip currents for all Pinellas beaches and tides 2 feet above normal from Tarpon Springs to Indian Rocks Beach. Clearwater Beach is expecting a northwest wind influence that is expected to cause wave run-up and beach erosion.

The price gouging law is also in effect. Effective only during a declared state of emergency, the price gouging law prohibits sharp increases in the price of essential commodities, such as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber, and equipment needed as a direct result of an official declared emergency. Violators are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation, up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.

Residents who suspect price gouging can report it to Pinellas County Consumer Protection at 727-464-6200 and are also encouraged to report it to the Attorney General’s hotline at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

Joe Henderson: Issue 1 in 2018 Gov’s race, fixing Florida environment

I think we have one of our first major campaign issues for the 2018 race to succeed Rick Scott as Florida’s governor. Any serious candidate who doesn’t come out strongly in favor seriously beefing up the state Department of Environmental Protection will miss a great opportunity.

In just the last couple of months alone, an understaffed and likely overwhelmed DEP has had to deal with the algae bloom that threatened to trash summer tourism in Stuart and surrounding areas.

Recriminations are still flying back and forth in the sewage overflow in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area in the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine. DEP was called in to investigate.

There is the ongoing disaster in Polk County, where hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water is falling through a massive sinkhole and mixing with the aquifer that provides drinking water for the state.

And let’s not forget that millions of honeybees died in South Florida after being sprayed with a pesticide that was supposed to attack Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

Environmental Cassandras have warned for a while now to expect a season like this. They point to Scott’s obsession at creating private-sector jobs as a big part of the problem. Strict environmental standards can be bad for business because they can increase costs. Since Scott took office in 2011, critics continually argue his business-friendly policies led to lax environmental oversight.

The irony, of course, is that the environmental problems this year are demonstrably bad for the state’s business. We can’t do anything to stop a hurricane, but the algae bloom is said to be a direct result of chemical runoff into Lake Okeechobee. referred to it as a “guacamole-like blue-green sludge” that had the added impact of smelling really bad. That message went out all over the country.

Scott declared a state of emergency, although a better course might have been to keep tougher regulations so the bloom wouldn’t occur to begin with.

And the building disaster in Polk County has the potential to haunt Floridians for years. Scott visited the sinkhole site this week and ordered some tough new policies to inform the public when these things happen. Nice. But it also has the effect of closing the barn door a bit late after the gypsum stack created by phosphate giant Mosaic started sinking into our water supply.

Environmentalists have long been at odds with Mosaic’s practices. The Tampa Bay Rays baseball team found that out in 2010 when it reached a tentative deal to sell naming rights to its spring training complex in Port Charlotte to the company.

The deal fell apart after vocal and widespread opposition because critics said a plan by Mosaic to mine along the Peace River could have had disastrous effects on Charlotte Harbor.

When the company tried to point to the money Charlotte County would make in the naming deal, The Sarasota Herald Tribune quoted Adam Cummings, “I will not take their 30 pieces of silver or step foot in any stadium under the name Mosaic.”

Floridians care deeply about their environment. They vote consistently in large numbers to protect it. Those good intentions have often been trampled in Tallahassee, though, in the name of commerce and expansion.

With two years left in Scott’s term, potential candidates are preparing bids to succeed him. A good way to start might be with a pledge to get serious about protecting the fragile environment of this state we love. And whoever wins should prove they mean it.

St. Pete Yacht Club nears limit for Cuban regatta

The St. Petersburg Yacht Club is nearing its goal for the number of boats participating in its St. Petersburg-Habana Race 2017, which launches from downtown St. Petersburg on Feb. 28.

The regatta has generated an enthusiastic response nationwide from the sailing community since it was announced Aug. 1 that the 107-year-old yacht club is reviving the St. Petersburg-Habana Race, which it staged from 1930 to 1959.

“We are excited about the growing number of entrants signing up to participate in this regatta, but I can’t say I’m surprised by this strong show of support,” said Richard Winning, commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and lifelong resident of St. Petersburg. “Growing up here, this regatta was always a big part of the culture of our city. The return of this regatta is as much about the people of St. Petersburg as it is about the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, and we are proud to preserve this piece of our community legacy.”

After finishing 284 nautical miles of competitive sailing, the boaters will enjoy three days of festivities in Cuba — including another 12-mile race — before heading home.

The 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Race is capped at 80 boats.

The deadline for confirmed entry is Nov. 7, when all fees are due. The closing date for “People-to-People” travel packages is also Nov. 7, at 11:59 a.m. 

The Cuba experience is not restricted to yacht competitors or members of the Club. Anyone can take part in a licensed “people-to-people” program associated with the race.

Boaters interested in further details about the competition can click here more information and access the notice of race. Click here for information on the “People-to-People” program. The St. Petersburg Yacht Club has brought in ASC International USA to offer packages to people traveling by air. They consist of three five-day/four-night packages, and three weekend (three-day/two night) packages.

The St. Petersburg-Habana Race, conceived by George “Gidge” Gandy in the late 1920s as a promotional event for the city, first launched on March 30, 1930, at the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier. It quickly became one of the city’s signature events.

The event was suspended in 1942 because of World War II and resumed in 1946.

Military and political unrest in Cuba threatened the race in the latter 1950s, and it was last run in 1959, as gun-wielding revolutionaries patrolled the streets of Havana. Recent breakthroughs in U.S.-Cuba relations prompted club officials to reinstitute one of its most historically significant events.

St. Pete, Gulfport celebrate two cities, one street

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson will work together this Saturday to help clean up a street that’s common to both cities.

After the cleanup, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway and Gulfport police Chief Rob Vincent will hold their own community event to discuss how the departments are collaborating on issues common to the 49th Street South corridor that both share.

“This event brings residents from both great cities together to work collaboratively along the 49th Street corridor,” St. Petersburg spokesman Ben Kirby said. “Mayor Kriseman is looking forward to standing with Mayor Henderson, and with members of the City of St. Petersburg team, for the third year in a row to help make St. Petersburg and Gulfport shine.”

The event is sponsored by the Gulfport Neighbors and Childs Park community associations.

Registration for the event begins at 7:45 a.m. at the east end of the Tangerine Greenway, which is at Tangerine Avenue and 49th Street South. The mayors’ welcome will begin at 8:30 a.m. with cleanup scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.

The chiefs’ discussion on ways the departments are working together to curb crime in the mutual area is scheduled to kick off at 10:30 a.m. The setting will be informal and residents are encouraged to ask questions, express concerns, and offer suggestions.

Festivities, including a lunch, prizes, and games, is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Residents from St. Pete and Gulfport are welcome at the event.

St Pete Gulfport Cleanup

Decision to reopen Albert Whitted sewage plant up to city council, Rick Kriseman says

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Friday he’s leaving the decision to bring the Albert Whitted sewer plant back online up to city council members.

Kriseman said a consultant’s reported indicated the expense and time to bring the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility up to a usable standard would be costly and time-consuming. The money and time, the consultant said, could be better used.

Kriseman also provided a quick update on the city’s progress in solving the city’s sewer woes.

City officials are moving as quickly as they can, he said, in hiring someone to do an audit of the city’s water resources department to discover the whos, whats and whens of a 2014 consultant’s report. The report warned the city that closing the Albert Whitted plant and diverting the flow to the nearby Southwest plant before the capacity at that plant was increased would be courting disaster.

“Most importantly,” Kriseman said of the external audit, it will find out “why the council didn’t see the report and why I didn’t see the report.”

Kriseman said he’s also devoting one employee in the city’s procurement department to purchases related to the water resources department and the sewer improvements. That should help move things along quickly, he said.

The city expects to have a timeline available in the next two weeks, he said, outlining the city’s plans going forward. Among those plans is the expenditure of about $58 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That money will be spent relining pipes and starting projects designed to increase the capacity of the system.

The city has earmarked an additional $230 million over the next five years for other improvements to the system, and another $8 million a year on pipes.

But Kriseman said it will all take time and will not solve the problems caused by lateral pipes – those leading from homes and businesses into the public system. Those, he said, will also have to be fixed to help prevent future flooding.

The mayor said he’s also hoping that other municipalities that send their sewage to St. Pete for treatment will also work to improve their systems.

The problem in St. Petersburg, he said, is not capacity. The city has enough capacity to handle all the sewage it treats. The problem is an incursion and rain problem. When heavy rains get into the system, he said, that overburdens the system and causes the overflows.

St. Pete City Council orders outside audit of sewer report

Rick-KrisemanSt. Petersburg City Council members voted Thursday unanimously to call in outside auditors to find out why a 2014 sewer report was never given to the mayor or council.

It’s also likely that the committee will bring in an outside consultant to evaluate the management of the city’s water resources department. The item will be on an upcoming agenda of a council committee. It’s likely the consultant will also be asked to widen the evaluation to include both the sanitation and information technology departments.

The decision came after a couple of weeks of battering for a 151 million gallon sewage spill into Tampa Bay and surrounding waters. Between 35 and 40 residents had sewage back up into their homes.

The wastewater discharge was caused by a sewer system overburdened by rains from a tropical storm that passed offshore. The storm, which later became Hurricane Hermine, dumped heavy rain on Pinellas County.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has blamed the system overflow in part on a worn infrastructure that allowed rainwater to infiltrate pipes and overwhelm the system.

Another component to the problem was the April 2015 closure of the Albert Whitted sewer plant. Wastewater from the plant was diverted to the nearby Southwest plant, which is slated for expansion. Kriseman has said officials’ belief that the Southwest plant could handle the overflow was based on conclusions in consultants’ studies.

A 2014 report, however, said the city would risk an overflow if Albert Whitted were closed before Southwest was expanded. Kriseman and council members said they never received that report. It’s that report that the council wants traced to find out what happened and why members weren’t told of its conclusions.

Kriseman on Wednesday put two midlevel directors on unpaid leave, saying the water resources department “had weak leadership” who had “a degree of disregard for decision makers.”

Kriseman told council members he also intends to hire a public information officer whose sole job would be to keep people informed of happenings in the water resources department. That would include the progress of repairs and improvements to the system and communications about problems in the system whether those arise from storms or other causes.

The council agreed with Kriseman that, once work begins on the expansion of the Southwest plant and other improvements, workers would be on site seven days a week and be able to work double shifts. The goal is to have the system ready for the 2018 storm season to help avoid a future overflow.

Joe Henderson: St. Pete’s stinky mess, sewage and politics

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is angry — MAD, I tell you! — that Gov. Rick Scott is playing politics just because the city’s streets and waterways were covered in sewage following Hurricane Hermine.

Um, Mr. Mayor?

I suspect you already know this, but you have a lot bigger problems than the Republican governor of the state turning a major mess in the city controlled by a Democratic mayor (that’s you, sir) into political capital.

Of course, politics will be involved, and Scott did what politicians do when he quite properly ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection to investigate just how badly St. Petersburg screwed this thing up. It was political, too, when Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly asked for federal intervention into the matter.

Jolly’s move is a bit snarky. Like Charlie Crist, his opponent for the CD 13 seat in November, pointed out in their debate Monday, where was Jolly when the streets started looking and smelling bad? Jolly said he wasn’t asked to get involved.

Bad answer.

But Scott’s moves, while political, also are things the governor should be doing. He ought to be turning up the heat to broiling. That includes his order for the state health department to test whether some beaches and water for lingering effects of the sewage flood that turned parts of a lovely city into a stinky mess.

That prompted this rebuttal from Kriseman:

“The Department of Environmental Protection is already involved in this issue, and given that the governor is singling out St. Petersburg and ignoring the actions of governments across our region, we have to chalk this up to politics,” he said in a statement released by his office.

Actually, the governor said spills in other parts of the area are being investigated as well. But unless there is some information that has yet to become public, none of those other places had a blunt warning two years ago to expect this result if a big storm hit.

That is what a city-commissioned study predicted in 2014 after officials shut down the Albert Whitted treatment plant to save money. Kriseman said he never saw that report and apparently neither did city council members, but everyone knows about it now after an official in the wastewater department produced it last week.

That official promptly asked for whistleblower protection, which is an indication of how volatile this report is. Kriseman has already suspended two major leaders the wastewater department, and we’ll all be surprised if there isn’t a top-to-bottom overhaul there.

Well and good.

St. Petersburg follows the strong mayor form of government, which essentially means Kriseman is the CEO and oversees the city’s day-to-day operations.

When something like this happens, the buck naturally is going to stop at his desk, and there will be fallout from the political opposition. Kriseman’s better response for Scott’s decree would be to welcome the DEP investigators, the health department, and any other agencies who show up at his door.

Sure, they’re coming for his scalp. Welcome them anyway. They will write scathing reports about how badly things got bungled here. The public already knows this, so the mayor should just swallow the medicine coming his way and do whatever it takes — beg, borrow, whatever — to make sure this never happens again.

In the meantime, consider this. Upgrading the city’s water treatment system to handle a storm like Hermine, or worse, could take a couple of years. Hold your breath.

Or at least your nose.

St. Pete Councilmember wants to consider reopening Albert Whitted sewage facility

Steve KornellSteve Kornell says he wants to revisit the 2011 decision to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant and to take another look at the decision to move all biosolids to the Southwest plant.

The reason? He doesn’t trust that city staff gave council full, unbiased information when members made those decisions.

Kornell made the announcement Wednesday on his Facebook page:

“I have placed a new business item on the agenda for the Oct. 6 city council meeting asking that city council reconsider the decision to close the Albert Whitted plant and to work to reopen it as soon as possible. I am also asking that we reconsider the decision to move all bio- solids to the already clearly overloaded SW Plant. Let’s see how it goes this time.”

Later Wednesday, Kornell said, “I think we should have this discussion again in light of recent events.”

Kornell was referring in part to the dumping of 150 million gallons of partially treated wastewater, and stormwater mixed with raw sewage from manholes into Tampa Bay during three storms this past summer. City officials have blamed crumbling pipes and lack of capacity for the discharges.

The lack of capacity was caused in part by the closure of the Albert Whitted treatment plant and the subsequent diversion of the wastewater to the Southwest plant. City officials have said they believed the Southwest plant had enough capacity to handle the wastewater normally flowing into it as well as the wastewater from Albert Whitted. That belief was based on a 2010 or 2011 study that concluded the closure of Albert Whitted would not tax Southwest. Based on that study, a unanimous council in early 2011 gave preliminary approval to the closure of Albert Whitted.

But before a final vote was taken, Kornell said, a resident found another study on the city’s website that said it would be better to divert the Albert Whitted wastewater to three other sites, not just one. Based on that study, Kornell said, he and then-council member Wengay Newton were the only two to vote against the closure of Albert Whitted.

Last week, a city employee, Craven Askew, told officials that there was a 2014 study that said Southwest could not handle the wastewater from Albert Whitted. Askew, who claimed whistleblower status, said city officials knew that overflows would occur if Albert Whitted was finally closed. That closure happened in 2014.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has said neither he nor council members had heard of the study until Askew revealed it. Kriseman has asked for an investigation into the city’s water resources department and, Wednesday, he put two midlevel water resources employees on unpaid administrative leave.

Kornell backed up Kriseman, saying that would not be the first time city staff members appear to have withheld or slanted information that does not jibe with staff recommendations.

“I will tell you there’s a pattern of not sharing studies with us,” Kornell said. “So when the mayor says we didn’t receive a report, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

That lack of trust, Kornell said, is also prompting him to call for a review of the decision to move biosolids to Southwest without a backup solution. Biosolids are the organic, solid matter derived from sewage.

Kornell said his questions about the wisdom of not having a backup were greeted with “a very snarky, smug answer. … They just blew it off.”

But, it just doesn’t make sense, he said, to have only one place for biosolids. If something happens to Southwest, which is clearly overburdened, then the city would be in real trouble. And in view of the news that information is being withheld from the council, it just makes sense to ask questions and take a closer look at recommendations, he said.

“If we’ve learned anything at all, it’s to question,” Kornell said. “As long as I feel staff is slanting information, I will continue” to ask.

Rick Kriseman accuses governor of playing politics with the sewage issue

Gov. Rick Scott is guilty of political grandstanding when calling for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate sewage overflows in St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

“The Department of Environmental Protection is already involved in this issue,” Kriseman said in a written statement. “And given that the governor is singling out St. Petersburg and ignoring the actions of governments across our region, we have to chalk this up to politics.”

Kriseman was reacting to the news that Scott had issued a news release saying he’d directed the DEP to investigate recent sewage discharges into Tampa Bay.

Scott directed the Florida Department of Health Tuesday to perform additional testing in the immediate area of the spill.

Scott’s statement came a day after members of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation berated Kriseman at a “fact-finding” session.

Some delegation members pelted Kriseman with questions about why the Albert Whitted sewage facility was closed down a year before it was required, under a consent order with DEP, to do so.

The closure of Albert Whitted and the subsequent diversion of the wastewater to the Southwest plant, which lacked the capacity to handle the flow resulting from recent torrential rains, caused much of the overflow.

Claude Tankersley, St. Petersburg’s public works administrator, said Albert Whitted was in the process of being dismantled because bringing it up to standard would have been cost prohibitive. A study made around 2011-12, he said, indicated that Southwest had the capacity to handle the wastewater.

After Albert Whitted was closed, equipment that was still usable was removed and used elsewhere.

Delegation members asked about a 2014 report that indicated Southwest lacked the capacity to handle wastewater in the case of heavy rain.

Kriseman said neither he nor St. Petersburg council members knew of that report until earlier this month when Craven Askew, a whistleblower, brought it to their attention. The Mayor said he had asked for an investigation into the situation.

On Wednesday, the same day Scott issued his orders, Kriseman suspended two midlevel water resources employees.

But delegation members also heard from Mary Yeargen, the southwest district director of the DEP, who spoke, among other things, of the requirements for cities to report overflows and discharges. Yeargen said the DEP is also working on arriving at another consent order with St. Petersburg to set deadlines for improvements to the city’s wastewater and stormwater systems.

Rick Kriseman suspends two city directors in wake of sewer tangle

Rick Kriseman
Rick Kriseman

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has placed two mid-level city employees on unpaid leave in the wake of allegations that city officials knew that closing the Albert Whitted sewer facility could cause flooding.

Kriseman said he plans to address the City Council on Thursday about the status of an independent review, the management study of the water resources department, and the plan for the two directors.

Kriseman made the announcement in a short release Wednesday:

“Mayor Rick Kriseman has placed water resources director Steve Leavitt on unpaid administrative leave. Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley has named John Palenchar the interim water resources director.

“Mayor Kriseman has also placed engineering director Tom Gibson on unpaid administrative leave. Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley has named Brejesh Prayman the interim engineering director.”

Kriseman’s actions come a day after he was called on the carpet and sharply criticized by members of the Pinellas Legislative Delegation for three incidents this summer when the city’s sewer system was unable to handle torrential rains. Millions of gallons of raw overflow from manholes mixed with rainwater and partially treated sewage were dumped in Tampa Bay.

Legislators slammed Kriseman for the decision to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant and divert that wastewater to the Southwest plant. A whistleblower has claimed that a study in 2014 indicated that the Southwest plant did not have the capacity to take care of the additional sewage. Craven Askew said city officials knew that the capacity was insufficient to handle heavy rain events.

Kriseman said neither he nor St. Petersburg council members had ever been informed of that study. He called for an independent review into the management of the water resources department.

Palenchar, a Dunedin resident, has worked as an environmental control supervisor with the city of Largo since April 2013. He served there as the interim environmental manager from June through October 2015. He has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida.

Prayman, a Tampa resident, has worked for St. Petersburg since 2004, most recently as a senior professional engineer. He holds a bachelor’s in civil engineering from the University of South Florida.

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