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Two letters show mounting concerns over the St. Pete’s wastewater infrastructure

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The City of St. Pete continues to face mounting criticism over an early August wastewater dump of 31 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Clam Bayou, Tampa Bay and the Eckerd College campus following a review of the city’s wastewater system.

Two separate letters addressed to Mayor Rick Kriseman ask the city to conduct an independent review, not an internal one.

“It became clear that this is not the independent inquiry that the City Council requested and that we believe is necessary to determine how the spill occurred and what should be done to ensure that such an incident never happens again,” wrote Eckerd College President Donald Eastman in a letter sent to Kriseman Wednesday.

Eastman was referring to a meeting he attended last week with the city’s public works staff and a consulting firm.

Instead, Eckerd College leadership is asking that they “shift supervision of the review to the city’s internal auditor, Brad Scott, to ensure an independent review.” They want the scope of the inquiry expanded to include how and why the spill occurred.

Eastman said that review should include exactly what was in the wastewater that spilled onto Eckerd’s pristine waterfront campus. He said data should be reviewed “beyond what is simply provided by city staff” in order to “conduct a thorough evaluation of the entire wastewater and stormwater system.”

Eastman’s goal is to ensure something like the August dump does not happen again.

He argues the school has not received “adequate or consistent explanations from city staff about how the failure occurred” and argued there was a breakdown in communication with the campus as the spill was occurring. He also said there has been limited explanation as to why there were such high bacteria counts found on campus following the spill.

The city had explained away high fecal bacteria counts as a result of animal droppings.

While Eastman acknowledged in his letter that he saw no reason to believe there were nefarious motives, he wrote that it is only natural for the stormwater department to be defensive over the wastewater dump that resulted after a 100-year rain event.

As Eckerd implores the city to find solutions to avoid future problems, it has also long been battling over possible plans to expand the Southwest wastewater treatment facility for a year. The giant silo next to Eckerd’s campus would hold 15 million gallons of wastewater. Eckerd has cited concerns over aesthetics in its critique of the plans.

The city made the decision to divert excess wastewater rather than allow it to back up through manholes after the city experienced an unusually high rain event. Should that ever happen again, a larger facility may thwart chances of further dumps, thus potentially alleviating Eckerd’s future concerns.

In a second letter from the Alliance for Bayway Communities, that group asks whether the closing of a facility at Albert Whitted Airport was “prudent,” suggesting perhaps the city should evaluate whether to re-commission that facility.

In that letter, the Alliance asks the city to conduct a “stress test” of its system that would mimic potential high-rain events in order to determine whether the city could handle such scenarios and, if not, what needs to be done to bring the system up to par.

Walter Donnelly wrote on behalf of the Alliance that the current studies will serve only to reiterate what the city has already found and do little to provide future solutions.

The letter penned by Donnelly was dated October 4 and was received by the mayor’s office. However, the letter from Eckerd College was sent October 3, allegedly via email. When the letter was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday, Kriseman’s spokesperson, Ben Kirby, said they had not received any such letter.

But yet the Times quoted from that letter. After learning the office had not received the email, Eastman sent it again Wednesday.

“It has come to my attention that you did not receive the email that I attempted to send on Saturday, October 3, at 4:12 p.m. I am therefore re-sending it to you now,” Eastman wrote in an email time-stamped 11:20 a.m.

The city has not yet responded to either the Eckerd or Alliance emails as Kriseman is out of town for a mayoral conference on entrepreneurship. However in a previous statement before receiving the Eckerd letter, Kirby questioned the motives of a letter given to the press before the intended recipient.

“It is disappointing that media outlets would get a copy of a letter addressed to Mayor Kriseman before he would get it,” Kirby wrote in a statement. “It speaks plainly to the motives of the letter.”

A public records request to the city for emails returned only the letter forwarded to the mayor’s office Wednesday, not one from the weekend. While it’s possible the email did not transmit properly, an inquiry to Eckerd College for the original email was answered simply by including the most recent copy sent to the mayor’s office.

Regardless, the city continues to face harsh questions from a growing chorus of concern over its wastewater system. Officials say they are diligently working to ensure a system that works.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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