PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Nineteen hours after Tuesday’s grilling by the Pinellas delegation of state lawmakers, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Krisemen placed City Engineer Tom Gibson and Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt on unpaid administrative leave. Both men were immediately replaced.
All of that is the apparent result of the city dumping 150 million gallons of effluent and sewage into Tampa Bay and Pinellas waterways during and after Hurricane Hermine. It turns out the city had a warning about sewage overflows two years ago, which city managers failed to act on.
St. Petersburg city managers largely ignored a $94,000 sewage study commissioned in 2014 by Gibson that You Paid For. The study said the Albert Whitted Sewage Treatment Plant should remain open until the city could expand capacity at other plants. Gibson and other city managers closed it anyway.
Mayor Kriseman insists he knew nothing of that study until a whistleblower stepped forward last week. The mayor is now calling for an internal investigation of his own management team.
Governor Scott is calling for a state Department of Environmental Protection investigation and Congressman David Jolly, R-Pinellas, wants the Environmental Protection Agency to get involved and is offering to assist other city workers seeking whistleblower protection if they’re afraid to speak out. Suddenly, St. Petersburg’s sewage problem is getting very political.
The storm caught St.Petersburg unprepared because city leaders failed to build an infrastructure to prevent such a disaster, despite hundreds of millions of dollars raised for just that sort of purpose since 1990 — money that You Paid For — through the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
Countywide the penny tax will have raised $3.5 billion by the end of this decade, but precious little of that money has been spent by St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and the other local governments across Pinellas to guard against sewage overflows and stormwater flooding.
“We need every city to plan for storms and plan for emergency management and it surprises me when they say we don’t plan for this,” State Rep Kathleen Peters, R-Pinellas, said. “The penny was for infrastructure. I’m not sure when culture and recreation got put into it.”
Councilman says city made massive mistake in 2011
St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell says if the city council had voted to keep the Albert Whitted treatment plant open in 2011, the recent dumping of nearly 150 millions gallons of sewage could have been prevented.
Kornell says he’s done everything he could and is disappointed by the dumping into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay.
“I think the second that we started discharging at the Northwest Plant, the second, we should have been notifying the media and notifying the public and letting them know,” Kornell told News Channel 8. “These overflows wouldn’t be happening because they were clearly caused by that closure.”
Kornell doesn’t want to play the blame game, he said. Instead, he wants wants the problem fixed.
We need to get it done tomorrow, but unfortunately … that’s not feasible,” Kornell said.
Kornell wants the Albert Whitted treatment plant re-opened. He plans to bring it up as a new item of business at a city council meeting on Oct. 6.
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