The head of St. Petersburg’s Public Works department told City Council members Thursday that he now believes the Albert Whitted sewer plant should not have been closed until the capacity at the Southwest plant had been increased.
“I want to make it perfectly clear that it is my opinion, and the opinion of my plant operators [that] the Southwest plant should have been expanded before Albert Whitted was closed,” Claude Tankersley said.
St. Petersburg City Councilmembers spent three hours Thursday hearing from Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tankersley about recent discharges of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay and other waterways.
Tankersley’s statement was not welcome.
Steve Kornell reminded Tankersley, who has been with the city about six months, that he did not tell Councilmembers that during a June meeting. Kornell wondered what caused the change.
“The change was me learning more,” Tankersley said.
Tankersley spent the weekend reading four studies that preceded the April 2015 closure of Albert Whitted — a 2010 study that laid out the proposal to close Albert Whitted and divert wastewater to the Southwest plant, which would be expanded; and a 2011 study that apparently backed up the 2010 study. Both indicated Albert Whitted could be closed before the Southwest plan was expanded.
The other two were a 2013 study that indicated that backed off a bit on the assurance that Southwest could handle the overflow during a heavy rain event. He also read a 2014 study that was allegedly withheld from the mayor and the council that said Albert Whitted should not be closed until after Southwest was expanded.
“I didn’t know that existed,” Tankersley said, referring to the 2014 report. As for the reason he had not read the others, Tankersley explained that he thought the decision to close Albert Whitted had been thoroughly vetted.
The reports were different because the earlier reports relied on data that was gathered during the drought of the late 1990s, early 2000s. That made it appear, he said, that the city’s sewer system was functioning more efficiently than it was. The two later reports were made after the annual rainfall had started returning to normal.
Tankersley added that having Albert Whitted online would not have prevented the overflow that happened as Hurricane Hermine dumped torrential rains on Pinellas County.
“Even if Albert Whitted had been open during the storm, we would have had problems,” Tankersley said. “This isn’t about Albert Whitted.”
That wasn’t a satisfactory answer for Amy Foster who said she was concerned that Tankersley had checked the data and assumptions after an earlier overflow this past summer.
“I feel like we’re caught in Groundhog Day,” Foster said, adding that the same issues regarding the city’s sewer system keep coming back before the council.
She also criticized Tankersley and the city administration for not revealing the extent of a 58 million gallon overflow.
“Lies of omission are lies,” Foster said.
Foster was not the only council member angered by the situation.
“Like a lot of people in our community, I’m mad about what’s is going on,” Ed Montanari said. “If this was a private business that did this, God help them.”