State leaders want answers after Tampa Bay sewage dumps

Image 1 of 3

State leaders are holding local officials accountable about the millions of gallons of sewage pumped into the Tampa Bay following Hurricane Hermine. They answered questions at Tuesday's Pinellas County Legislative Delegation meeting.

There was plenty of discussion but no decisions made yet on how to tackle the discharges. State leaders want to know how the problem got to this point and how local cities can keep history from repeating itself.

Captain Anthony Corcella of Pocket Change Inshore Fishing Charters has a lot of questions about what's in the water.

"I actually canceled one of my fishing charters today just to come here," Corcella said.

The answers he gets will have a direct impact on his livelihood.

"Is it safe to eat fish? Or, do I just keep on releasing them?" Corcella asked.

So far this year, the DEP reports 262 million gallons of sanitary sewer overflow statewide, with Pinellas County accounting for 248 million of that.

"Thanks to having less capacity, aging pipes and frequent and heavy rains," St. Pete Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said.

The concerns aren't just about the excess wastewater that was pumped into the Tampa Bay. They also revolve around manhole covers spewing sewage during major rain events as well as transparency for those who live in flooded areas.

"Should we be telling people where that's happening at the time it's happening?" asked DEP Spokesperson Mary Yeargen.

Audience members said, "Yes."

Yeargan acknowledged their response, saying, "there you have it."

Officials from Pinellas County, Largo and Clearwater spoke of their own issues, but St. Petersburg was in the spotlight, responsible for three large discharge events since last August due to major rain storms.

"Our system was overloaded. The collection system was overloaded. And, the treatment plants were overloaded," said Tankersley.

Lawmakers wanted to know why the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility closed in April of 2015 before improvements were finished at the Southwest Facility and why a 2014 whistleblower report predicting massive overflows as a result of the closure was ignored.

"When the decision to take it down was made, it was based on studies that showed, based on the data available at that time, there was capacity at Southwest," Tankersley said.

On the report, Mayor Rick Kriseman said, "I never saw that report, City Council never saw that report. We are asking the same questions."

Somehow, the DEP did see it. Kriseman is seeking independent counsel to find out why.

In the meantime, his focus is on prevention since a permanent solution to the city's wastewater woes could take 2-3 years.

"Trying to reduce the infiltration into our sewer system through our pipes," Kriseman explained. "We are going to be lining our pipes, we are going to be looking at our manhole covers, we are encouraging residents to get their laterals checked. We are looking at barges, we are looking at anything we can to try and see if we can avoid discharges."

Tuesday's meeting was capped at two hours which meant no public comment. State Senator Jack Latvala said the meeting was for fact-finding. The next meeting, within 60 days, is aimed at finding solutions. The goal is to have a vote in November on proposed permanent solutions.