While no criminal charges may ever be filed, the fact that a state agency recommended 89 felonies against St. Petersburg over its ongoing sewage crisis underscores the extent of city government's failure and negligence. And the environmental abuse continues: This week it was belatedly revealed that St. Petersburg discharged more than 15 million gallons of wastewater into the aquifer following Hurricane Irma. Containing this debacle and protecting the public health will require an all-hands commitment by City Hall and a monumental investment of taxpayer money — and it can't wait.
A yearlong investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of the city's multiple sewage discharges in 2015 and 2016 arrived at a stunning conclusion: evidence of 89 felonies and 103 misdemeanors, including pollution and littering that endanger human health. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe perhaps too quickly said Friday he will not pursue a criminal case because FWC did not recommend charges against any particular individuals. "There's a where. There's a when. There's no who," McCabe said. "It would totally be a waste of time and resources to hold the city criminally accountable."
That's a disappointing though pragmatic decision. Someone should be held to account for illegal wastewater discharges that the FWC called "unprecedented in state history." Fortunately, there's a city election in less than two weeks, and voters can decide for themselves whether anyone should be held responsible and pay a price for this public health debacle.
To be sure, the report chronicles 20 years of neglect and underfunding of the city's aging sewer system, a time frame that includes every St. Petersburg strong mayor — including former Mayor Rick Baker, who is running against current Mayor Rick Kriseman. But the state singles out Kriseman's 2015 closure of the treatment facility at Albert Whitted Airport as the primary decision that led to the sewage spills that began months later. The city closed that plant without adding capacity elsewhere, so when the rainy season hit the sewer system became inundated, resulting in repeated spills over two years totaling up to 200 million gallons. This should have surprised no one. The report says the city ignored an engineer's warning in 2014 that additional capacity was needed, and contrary to Kriseman's common refrain, the storms that followed were not "historic" or "unprecedented" but a fairly typical Florida weather pattern. The report also revealed that after Hurricane Hermine last fall the city illegally sent another 700 million to 800 million gallons of sewage underground via injection wells.
Last month, it happened again. Two days after Hurricane Irma sideswiped the city as a Category 1 storm, the Northeast sewage plant pumped 15.5 million gallons of wastewater down injection wells into the aquifer. As with many of the earlier discharges, there was no announcement from City Hall about the final toll. This time, as the Times' Charlie Frago reported, Kriseman said he didn't know about the Irma discharge until recently. Public works spokesman Bill Logan claimed there was no alert because there was no health risk, when in reality the water had not been disinfected or tested for bacteria. This has been the tactic all along: try to keep sewage spills secret, and when they become public, claim the water was safe. That's inexcusable.
On the campaign trail, Kriseman talks about his great plan to fix the sewers. But whether as candidate or as mayor, he never tells the whole story, the one in which his premature decision to close a treatment plant is largely responsible for 13 months of unprecedented sewage spills. Fixing the system long-term is going to cost the city untold millions, and St. Petersburg residents have no reason to trust that the Kriseman administration can get it right.