No Criminal Charges Will Be Filed Over St. Pete Sewer Woes
By ANNE LINDBERG, TB Reporter
The decision by State Attorney Bernie McCabe not to file charges came after a final state report that recommended 89 felony and 103 first-degree misdemeanor charges be filed against the city. The report also makes clear that the city’s sewer woes stem in part from decades of neglect.
ST. PETERSBURG – No criminal charges will be filed against city officials related to the discharge of millions of gallons of partly treated sewage into Tampa Bay in 2015 and 2016.
The decision, by Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, came after the release of a final report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission into multiple sewage spills in 2015-16 that dumped millions of gallons of partly treated sewage into Tampa Bay and into injection wells. The report concluded that “crimes were documented and supported by overwhelming evidence. We recommend that…89 felonies and 103 misdemeanors be brought against the city of St. Petersburg.”
McCabe said the 21-page report cast no new information on the issue than did a preliminary report last summer. McCabe said then he saw no reason to file charges – the city is working to correct the situation and there is no one person to blame for the spill. Today, McCabe said he saw no reason to change his mind about charges.
The final FWC report was the culmination of a year’s investigation. Although much of the report focuses on recent issues, it also traces the history of St. Petersburg’s sewer problems and makes clear that city officials have long known about the issues and failed, over at least a 20-year period, to fix them. It’s a time period that spanned at least a portion of four mayoral administrations and multiple city councils.
Referring to the 2015 and 2016 spills, the report says, “these should be considered willful and negligent acts that could have been avoided or at least significantly mitigated, had the city taken action 20 years ago…. Evidence and witness statements showed a long history of deferred maintenance, mismanagement of funds, and law violations. Based on interviews and the evidence obtained, the city appears to have been willfully and negligently indifferent toward known problems in its wastewater treatment system that ultimately led to some of the largest wastewater discharges in state history.”
The report cited examples that included taking the Albert Whitted plant offline before upgrades to the Southwest Water reclamation plant were done, failing to restart Albert Whitted after the discharge problem was identified, and “failing to repair essential equipment at [the Northwest Water reclamation facility] for 10 years that reduced its processing capacity.”
The report criticized Mayor Rick Kriseman’s decision in 2014 to close the Albert Whitted plant noting that a consultant had provided three suggested options to increase capacity at the Southwest plant to make up for the closure at Albert Whitted.
“The city chose not to do any of the options before closing [Albert Whitted] and redirecting the flow to [Southwest],” the report says. “After the flow had been diverted, the city chose the cheapest and least effective option that still did not increase treatment capacity.”
Three months later, the report notes, the city discharged 31 million gallons of wastewater. A year later, St. Petersburg discharged 10 million gallons of wastewater, most of which came from Albert Whitted, which was being used to store excess wastewater. Shortly after that, in August 2016, the city discharged an estimated 136-151 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay and an estimated 700-800 million gallons into injection wells.
The report says that the city could have restarted Albert Whitted before the massive August discharges but chose not to do so. Restarting Albert Whitted would not have stopped that large a discharge, but, the report says “would have significantly mitigated the discharges.”
The report blames St. Petersburg’s sewer woes on at least two more factors – growth and aging pipes that have not been maintained, particularly on private property.
The city, the report notes, has approved and continues to approve development even though the Southwest plant’s capacity was being taxed after the diversion of the flow from Albert Whitted.
The aging pipes, the report says, allow for inflow and infiltration – the entry of water through cracks, breaks and other openings into the system.
“Influx and infiltration (I&I) of storm water into the sanitary sewer system is a major problem in the city,” according to the report. “The city has a system that is old and in disrepair. Based upon investigative research, this problem was identified 20 years ago by [the Florida Department of Environmental Protection], and the city references the I&I as a main reason for high water flows during rain events.”
The report goes on to say that the “majority of inflow comes from private lateral lines. Several studies of the system were commissioned by the city. They recommended that the city needed to dramatically increase spending to repair the collection system as there were billions of dollars in needed repairs. It was identified 20 years ago as the primary culprit for high flows during rain events.”
City employees told the FWC that the city had done “very little” work to fix the I&I violations. Others interviewed by the FWC said they thought the system was fixed and there was therefore no need to worry about it.
The report said there was a February 2000 consent order between the state DEP and St. Petersburg that “was in response to multiple illegal discharges in the 1990s. I&I was identified as the culprit. The consent order had an effective time of 10 years to allow the city times to fix the (I&I) violations. The consent order was closed in 2010 because the city convinced FDEP that the I&I system had been repaired. Soon after, city management realized the system had not been fixed.”
The report says that as annual rainfall increased, city workers noticed an increase in the amount of water flowing through the sewers. They hired a consultant but did not study I&I. Instead, they focused on other issues, such as capacity.
“I&I is a known and documented problem from the 1990s,” the report says. “The manager over repairs to this system and engineering companies commissioned by the city advised what would be required to fix the system. Few of the recommendations were done and the required amount of money was not invested.”
The report concludes: “This investigator believes the city committed willful and negligent acts in regard to how it operates its wastewater treatment plants. My conclusions are supported by the city’s actions over the past 20 years and the evidence provided in this report.”
To read the report, click here: FWC Incident Report
For information about St. Petersburg, go to stpete.org.
File photo shows St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman at the city’s Southwest Sewer Reclamation Facility. By Anne Lindberg.
St Petersburg | Sewers | Bernie McCabe | Rick Kriseman | FWC | Fish and Wildlife | Tampabay News
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