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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.

Joe Henderson: Cross-Bay ferry – an idea whose time has finally come

One Saturday afternoon several months ago, I needed to drive from Brandon to St. Petersburg. As always, I took Interstate 4 to I-275 in downtown Tampa and headed toward the lovely ‘Burg.

Most days, that trek would take me about 40-45 minutes, assuming the weather was good, and there wasn’t a wreck at Malfunction Junction or on the big bridge. On this otherwise lovely afternoon, though, the journey took nearly 90 minutes.

Was there a wreck?

No.

Police activity?

Nope.

There were just a lot of cars, maybe headed toward the beach or, like me, toward one of the fine attractions in St. Petersburg. And as my wife and I inched along through the traffic quagmire, I may have once again opined (screamed?) that we need some freaking mass transportation in this area!

So, I will give two thumbs-up to Ed Turanchik’s ballyhooed Cross-Bay Ferry service between downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg will begin offering weekend service (Friday through Sunday) November 4.

As Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com reported, tickets are $10 each way for the 50-minute voyage.

A ferry ticket will earn you discounts for goods and services at many merchants, and local transportation – much of it free or very cheap – can take riders to Rays games, the beach, Ybor City, and other spots right after they disembark.

“It is simply the best transportation option we have in the Bay area,” said Turanchik, the former Hillsborough County commissioner who was a driving force behind the ferry.

A word about Turanchik: He is a forward-thinker. He was derided as “Commissioner Choo-Choo” in the 1990s for strongly advocating light rail as a way to head off our now-choking traffic problem. He also pushed to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to Tampa and Central Florida (OK, so maybe not all of his ideas are great).

But this ferry seemed right from the start, and if it can survive the initial shakedown period, it can be a game-changer.

You know how things go. Something new comes along and it’s trendy, so people will love at first. Then after a little while, inertia sets in and they return to old habits, so I would expect ridership to drop off for a while.

With more people moving in every day (meaning more cars) and our roads under a perpetual state of construction, though, the ferry is a practical alternative that could make people wonder why it didn’t come along sooner.

Rick Scott orders DEP investigation in St. Petersburg sewage discharges

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate sewage discharges in St. Petersburg.

The Governor’s Office made the announcement Wednesday, just one day after Scott called on the state Department of Health to begin additional testing at the discharge site. While the city is responsible for testing in the immediate area, the Department of Health will monitor the water quality and do sampling at 14 beaches — including nine in Pinellas County and five in Hillsborough.

“Florida is known for our pristine environment, world-class beaches and award-winning state parks,” said Scott in a statement. “We must do all we can to protect our environment, and that is why I am directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the sewage dump that occurred in St. Petersburg following Hurricane Hermine.”

Heavy rains from Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed the area’s sewer systems. That caused millions of gallons of sewage to flow into the streets and waterways. According to the Governor’s Office, St. Petersburg dumped more than 150 million of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay.

The Department of Health has issued a health advisory for Simmons Park Beach in Hillsborough County, across the bay from St. Petersburg.

Lawmakers learn Pinellas is responsible for half of Florida’s wastewater overflow this year

Lack of capacity, deteriorating sewer lines, broken equipment, and an immense amount of rain are to blame for overwhelmed sewer systems that have dumped more than 248 million gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay and other Pinellas waterways so far this year.

Kathleen Peters
Kathleen Peters

Those explanations, provided to the county’s legislative delegation during a fact-finding session Tuesday, did not sit well with at least one delegation member.

“I get frustrated when I hear excuses and I hear climate change,” state Rep. Kathleen Peters said.

Some cities, she said, had neglected their duty to keep up with infrastructure improvements. As an example, Peters referred to the Penny for Pinellas. That tax, she said, was to improve infrastructure, yet very few projects had to do with improving cities’ sewer systems. In a county that worries about tropical weather and potential hurricanes, making sure wastewater and storm water systems were ready for such rain events should have been an easy call. Instead, the money went elsewhere.

“I don’t want to hear excuses anymore,” Peters said, adding that she wasn’t making her statements “to attack anyone.”

Peters made her statements toward the end of a special delegation meeting called for members to hear why the county, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Largo had overflows during the Hurricane Hermine. The meeting is the first of at least two. The delegation plans to meet again in 60 days to hear from the public and to get a progress report and more details from the county and the cities.

The sheer magnitude of the various overflows came into sharp focus when Mary Yeargen, the southwest district director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, laid out the numbers.

In 2014, the entire state of Florida saw 137 million gallons of overflow; in 2015, the state amount was 151 gallons; so far this year, the statewide overflow is about 262 million gallons. So far this year, Pinellas County has had overflows totaling more than 248 million gallons.

More than half the wastewater discharge for the entire state of Florida so far this year, came from Pinellas County, she said.

“We don’t want to see this happen again,” Yeargen said.

Jack LatvalaOfficials from the county and all three cities said they have projects in place to improve and expand their wastewater systems. But it’s not a quick fix. Many of the improvements will take years to get into place.

And, they said, fixing the publicly owned pipes is just part of the problem. A lot of the problem comes from so-called lateral pipes — the ones that run from peoples’ homes and businesses to the street where they meet the government-owned pipes.

Many of those lateral pipes have deteriorated and allow rainwater to flow into the sewer system, which helps cause the system to become overwhelmed.

Irvin Kety, Largo’s environmental services director, estimated inflow from those privately owned lateral pipes was responsible for up to half of the rainwater incursion that causes many of the problems. While Largo is improving its system, unless the privately owned pipes are fixed, “we’re still going to have overflow,” Kety said.

“We’ve got to get a handle on those private systems,” Kety said.

Rick-Kriseman   George CretekosThe problem is, the cities can’t go on private property and fix privately owned pipes. Homeowners will have to foot those bills. Kety said it’s hard to estimate what that might cost. It depends on the length of the pipe, whether it has to replaced, and whether it’s under a concrete drive. But, he said, a ballpark figure could put the cost at $2,000 to $3,000.

State Sen. Jack Latvala suggested cities might pass an ordinance requiring homeowners to get the lateral lines evaluated before they sell their homes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he had given a sample ordinance to the city attorney for consideration. That could come before the St. Petersburg City Council.

Both he and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos suggested the delegation could help pass a statute or set up a rebate or loan program to help homeowners pay for the repairs.

Janet Long suggests bringing all the sewer systems in Pinellas under one umbrella

Janet LongIn recent months, St. Petersburg has become the poster child for a crumbling sewer infrastructure that’s dumped millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay.

But the problem of failing infrastructure is much bigger than St. Pete. It’s countywide. The county, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs — just to name four — also have had problems with sewer systems unable to handle recent heavy rains.

It’s an urgent problem, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said Monday. It’s one complicated by a fragmented system that’s undergone decades of neglect. It’s time, Long said, to consider a countywide sewer system, somewhat like the solid waste management system.

The county runs the one landfill in Pinellas and oversees the one waste-to-energy facility in Pinellas. On the other hand, Pinellas County has 17 sewer systems — one belonging to the county, 13 belonging to municipalities, and three belonging to private landowners, according to county records.

The cost to upgrade those, in particular for the systems run by smaller cities like Treasure Island, South Pasadena, Gulfport, Redington Shores, and North Redington Beach, could be prohibitive.

“These are big infrastructure projects that one little city can’t handle on its own,” Long said.

Even the bigger cities will have problems affording improvements.

A better system, she said, would bring all the systems under one umbrella. Then, a study could be done to see how best to develop a state-of-the-art system for the entire county. After that, a decision could be made on ways to free up the necessary resources to pay to have the system put in place.

“I’m hoping that this task force will help us get there,” Long said. She was referring to a county task force Pinellas commissioners agreed to set up to find long-range solutions to the flooding and sewer infrastructure problems.

The failing infrastructure is a problem caused by decades of neglect, she said, in part because there’s never been an outcry to improve the wastewater system.

“There’s never been a brouhaha over the sewer system until now,” Long said. But now that people are paying attention, it’s time to find a long-term solution.

“We can’t wait 20 years,” she said.

Jack Latvala: What about using barges to prevent sewer overflows?

latvala, jack - flooding

On the eve of a meeting between the Pinellas Legislative delegation and city officials, state Sen. Jack Latvala has presented one possible solution to prevent further overflows of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

And he wants St. Petersburg officials to tell him if it’s a good idea and, if not, why not.

“I would like your presentation to include if it is feasible for barges or tankers to be brought into Bayboro to be used for heavy rain events and, if it is not viable, why not,” the Clearwater Republican wrote Monday in a letter to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Ben Kirby, spokesman for Kriseman, said the idea is one of many St. Petersburg officials have discussed. It will be one of the ideas that Claude Tankersley, the city’s public works chief, will present at Tuesday’s meeting.

The state of St. Petersburg’s sewer system has risen to the top of officials’ agendas after the city poured millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into the bay during storms this summer. St. Petersburg officials say part of the problem is the city’s old sewer system that allows rain water to infiltrate and overburden the system, causing backups and overflows.

Earlier this month, Latvala and fellow Republican, state Rep. Kathleen Peters, called for a meeting of the Legislative Delegation to discuss what’s needed to prevent another overflow. The Pinellas County commission has also called for a task force to seek solutions to the problem.

The delegation is scheduled to meet Tuesday, which Latvala referred to, saying he was looking forward to hearing the city’s presentation.

“We are all deeply concerned by the discharge of hundreds of millions of wastewater that was not fully treated into our bay,” Latvala wrote. “I recognize that the city has projects underway and is planning that will alleviate these discharges in the future. But my question is, do we continue to sit by and allow these discharges happen during every major rain event until those projects are completed?”

Latvala said a constituent suggested bringing in relocatable storage units, such as barges, bladders, or tankers that the city could rent and place at Bayboro Harbor to hold “millions of gallons of outtake.”

“I would like for the city to consider renting bladders or barges and then pumping the flow to a processing plant when allowed after the rain event.”

Joe Henderson: Polluted water in St. Pete leaves little room for mistake

We love the water around here. We boat on it, haul fish from it, swim in it, and build houses that provide spectacular views of it. Water is such a big deal around here that many people identify us not by the actual places where we live, but by the catchall name of Tampa Bay.

So while having local waterways polluted with millions of gallons of untreated sewage would be a major story anywhere, it is a catastrophe here. And that is what we have, stretching from St. Petersburg into Pasco County.

It has been called a “spill,” but that’s a little like calling the Johnstown Flood a “leak.” Fingers are being pointed in all directions, and we can only assume follow-up investigations into this will narrow down the culprits. A mess of this size almost certainly was a group effort.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday on Craven R. Askew, chief operator of the Northwest sewage plant in St. Petersburg. Askew asked St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman for whistleblower protection after publicly revealing a two-year-old study that warned something like that could happen.

In 2011, the city council voted to close the plant as a cost-saving measure. Askew had warned the three remaining treatment plants could be overwhelmed by the kind of rain that accompanied Hurricane Hermine two weeks ago.

That’s just what happened, as the remaining plants couldn’t handle the load and about 150 million gallons of sewage were loosed on city streets and waterways.

There were warning signs even before then, though. There were other, smaller spills that should have sounded an alarm, but apparently did not.

Kriseman, who took office in 2014, says he was unaware of Askew’s concerns. Well, Kriseman and everyone else knows about them now, so once the finger-pointing and backside-covering stops, the question becomes what the plan will be to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Hermine was a modest storm as tropical systems go, and yet the areas along the coast from Pasco and Pinellas were belted by widespread flooding and this wastewater nightmare. What would happen if there was a Category 3 or higher storm that took the path Hermine did?

Experts have been warning for years that all the land hugging the waters in our area could experience a Katrina-like disaster in the aftermath of a major hurricane. Hermine, comparatively, was a little puppy.

Damage and flooding would be unavoidable in that case, but there are steps the most vulnerable cities — and St. Petersburg qualifies — can take now that could mitigate the impact. I wonder if council members would have found another way to save money in 2011 if they could have looked into a crystal ball and foreseen what their pound-foolish approach would unleash.

Water is this area’s No. 1 resource. It forms the backbone of tourism and our quality of life, so let this be a lesson to all the officials and agencies charged with keeping that water clean. If you don’t get this one right, whatever else you do won’t matter much.

DEP says St. Petersburg sewage discharges violate environmental laws

city-of-st-peteThe Florida Department of Environmental Protection has entered into a consent order with the City of St. Petersburg after determining the city violated environmental laws that resulted in the unpermitted discharges of sewage into Clam Bayou and Tampa Bay during August of 2015, June of 2016, and Aug. 31-Sept.13 of this year.

The 11-page document was signed by Mary Yeargan, Southwest District Director for the Florida DEP and sent to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Public Works Administer Claude Tankersley on Friday. Yeargan writes the DEP will soon be “reaching out to schedule a meeting in the very near future to discuss the terms of this Order.”

The DEP found violations to have occurred at three specific times: The first on Aug. 2-10 of 2015, when more than 31.5 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into Clam Bayou and surrounding neighborhoods.

On June 6-9 of 2016, approximately 230,000 gallons of untreated wastewater and effluent was released through overflows of manholes, and 9.77 million gallons of partially treated wastewater through the emergency outfall at the Albert Whitted Treatment Plant.

And from Aug. 31-Sept. 6 of 2016, unpermitted discharges of wastewater and effluent from several treatment plants, “resulted in the release of an unknown number of untreated wastewater and effluent through overflows of manholes and between 78 and 93 million gallons of partially treated wastewater” through Albert Whitted, and 58 million gallons of treated effluent to Jungle Lake.

In June, Pinellas County House District 69 Republican Kathleen Peters sent a letter to Florida DEP Secretary Jon Steverson, calling for an investigation into the city’s sewer system.

DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller says in June, the City of St. Petersburg and the DEP discussed a consent order, which sets up remedies and timelines “to reach solutions to bring the facility back into compliance.”

That document was delivered on Friday.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Friday that Mayor Kriseman is calling for an independent firm to investigate why a 2014 consultant’s study that indicated closing down the Albert Whitted sewer plant could lead to spills and dumps never reached his desk.

Rick Kriseman calls for review of St. Petersburg water department management

kriseman-rick-tiger-bayMayor Rick Kriseman has called for a review of the management of the St. Petersburg water resources department.

Kriseman’s call comes in the wake of accusations by water resources employee Craven Askew that city officials knew closing the Albert Whitted sewer plant could cause overflows and the subsequent dumping of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Kriseman issued this statement late Friday afternoon:

“Included in Mr. Askew’s email is a consultant’s report that I believe has never been shared publicly or with my office or with City Council. As such, I have asked our legal and human resources departments to work with an independent firm to learn why this report has only recently surfaced and to conduct a thorough management review of Water Resources. I demand accountability to me, to city council, and to the citizens we serve.”

Askew claimed whistleblower status — which would protect him from firing or other retaliation — when he filed his complaint Thursday. The gist of the complaint was that city officials knew the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility, where the Albert Whitted wastewater was directed, was not capable of handling a heavy rain event. Yet, knowing that, Askew alleged, city officials closed Albert Whitted without making the necessary improvements.

In the complaint, Askew referred to a study that recommended improvements be made and completed before diverting the flow from Albert Whitted to Southwest.

“The city experienced high weather in August 2015, which caused over 30 million gallons spilled at Southwest, Clam Bayou, and Tampa Bay due to Albert Whitted shutdown,” Askew wrote. “We have since then had a rain event in June 2016 and September and August 2016 which discharged estimated sewage of 80 million gallons into Tampa Bay.”

Askew said he had told city management staff about his concerns in July.

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