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Public gets another shot at suggesting fixes to St. Pete’s ‘Sewer-gate’

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

It’s a crisis that’s become something of a boondoggle — and, moreover, a public health issue.

Now St. Petersburg’s overwhelmed and dilapidated sewer system is again at the forefront as officials held another round of public discussions in the costly and complex issue of best to go about fixing the problem.

The topic of the evening, as reported by The Tampa Bay Times, a 12-page consent order written by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – faulting city officials when the system became overwhelmed in the wake of Hurricane Hermine September, spilling somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 million gallons of partially treated sewage.

DEP slapped the city with an $810,000 fine for the unauthorized move, but in fairness, city officials say, it was unavoidable.

“When we’re put into a situation where we have to choose between public health and the environment, either way, we lose,” Claude Tankersley, the public works chief for the city, told The New York Times days after the spill happened. “The fact that our system was constructed over decades makes it more complicated.”

The event became a controversy when city officials, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, claimed most of the sewage was filtered rain water and dramatically underestimated the amount spilled, which dumped into Tampa Bay, adding to tens of millions of gallons also spilled by area municipalities like Tampa, Largo and Clearwater.

On Wednesday Kriseman listened, Tampa Bay Times reporter Claire McNeill noted in her story.

“You all let my 8-year-old daughter go sailing right in the immediate area where the discharges were occurring,” Martha Collins, 44, told officials, according to The Tampa Bay Times. “And that’s absolutely unacceptable.”

It was a chance for several people to let city officials know how they felt about being misled — about the loss of trust.

One young candidate for City Council, Eritha Cainion, 20, discussed the termination of a black employee with the City of St. Petersburg, who had been terminated in the unfolding aftermath of the spill, intoning the man had been made a scapegoat while also noting spirits were not high in that department.

“We’re talking about a Department that has severe racial tension,” Cainion said, McNeill’s article said.

Tankersley, who was present at the meeting Wednesday, which was held at Azalea Recreation Center, mediated the meeting. He thanked the young man and explained the course of events in September, when Hurricane Hermine swept through, dumping inches of rain in a brief period.

As the meeting moved forward, opinions ranged from conservationism to anger, with one individual calling for the arrests of those responsible, McNeill’s piece said.

“Somebody needs to go to jail for what happened,” the person said, wrote the Times. “That was a crime.”

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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