Rick Kriseman: St. Petersburg's sewer system ready for summer storms
ST. PETERSBURG — In front of a line of television cameras, protected from the scorching sun by a portable shelter, Mayor Rick Kriseman and a phalanx of sewer officials showed off the new filters and injection wells at a sewage plant on Tuesday.
They declared that the city was ahead of schedule making improvements to its beleagured sewer system.
The City Council is poised Thursday to approve a state consent order that will require St. Petersburg to spend hundreds of millions dollars upgrading the sewage system after it released up to 200 million gallons over 13 months. However, Kriseman said that much of the work to avoid the kind of massive spills resulting from storms like Hurricane Hermine (which led to the release of 151 million gallons of waste in the summer of 2016) will be in place by late August.
The Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College will have its treatment capacity doubled. So will the Northwest plant in west St. Petersburg, near Azalea Middle School. Both plants saw major spills since August 2015, when the city first started discharging waste into local waterways and neighborhoods.
Noting that one of the city’s sewage plants recorded 5 inches of rain in a single day last month, Kriseman said that shows the upgraded system is now better equipped to handle heavy rains.
“It’s great news,” the mayor said.
That plant was later identified by Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley as the Northeast plant, which wasn't not scheduled for major upgrades. That plant hasn't experienced any significant spills.
The Southwest plant, however, has been a beehive of activity as workers put in new filters and add a system that is supposed to turn sewage waste into methane gas and high-grade fertilizer. More than 100,000 man hours have already been logged, Kriseman said, by more than 100 workers.
City Council member Karl Nurse, who attended Tuesday's news conference, pointed out that sewage improvements are underway across the city.
Manholes are being lined to prevent storm water from getting into sewer pipes. Leaky pipes are being replaced or lined at more than triple the rate of previous years, Nurse said.
Both Nurse and Kriseman repeatedly noted that the sewage system had been neglected by previous mayors. Kriseman just so happens to be battling a former mayor, Rick Baker, to hold onto elected office.
But when asked if he bore any responsibility for a city sewage system that will soon be placed under state oversight, Kriseman demurred.
“This isn't about pointing blame," he said. "You have to figure out how you got to where you’re at.
"What caused the problems? What's wrong with the system if you're going to fix it? I’m in this position to make sure we prevent this from happening again and to move forward.
"We see what we could have done better, what prior administrations could have done better.”
Kriseman's re-election campaign against Baker, who served from 2001-10, is already the most expensive campaign in city history. And if neither candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 29 primary, the race will continue on to the Nov. 7 general election.
Baker has repeatedly blasted Kriseman’s handling of the sewage crisis. The former mayor has said closing the Albert Whitted sewage plant in 2015 was a huge error by Kriseman. The first spills began four months later. That decision was actually made by the St. Petersburg City Council in 2011, but carried out in 2015 by the Kriseman administration.
On Tuesday, Kriseman said city staff is still considering whether to reopen the Albert Whitted plant and try to restore some of the sewage capacity the city lost in 2015 when it went from four sewage plants down to three. But that decision won’t be made until a sewage system master plan is finished in 2019.
Baker has said that, if elected, his first prority would be making a decision on Albert Whitted's fate.
Nurse came to Kriseman's defense, saying that in recent years the city has shifted dramatically away from ribbon-cuttings and attention-grabbing projects and focused on repairing its aging infrastructure.
The council member hasn't endorsed Kriseman, a fellow Democrat, for re-election, but Nurse has frequently appeared with the mayor at ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings in recent weeks.
Once, Kriseman and Nurse were at odds over infrastructure. In 2015, Kriseman resisted spending BP oil spill settlement money on sewers when the first spills started. Instead, the mayor wanted to spend the money on projects like a bike share program and the CrossBay Ferry — to the consternation of Nurse at the time. But the mayor recently agreed to dedicate most of the city's share of the next decades of Penny for Pinellas funds — more than $130 million — on sewers, bridges and other infrastructure needs.
“Those are radically different spending priorities,” Nurse said. “There won’t be very many fancy ribbon cuttings. If you’re going to have ribbon cuttings they're going to be at sewer plants or bridges that are 95 years old.”