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St. Pete City Council approves settlement in sewage spill lawsuit

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A St. Petersburg City Council meeting (file photo by Graham Colton).

Thursday afternoon at St. Petersburg City Hall, City Council voted to settle a lawsuit with the environmental organizations that sued the city in the wake of the city’s well-documented sewage crisis. The settlement will conclude a saga that began in 2015, when the city released up to one billion gallons of sewage – up to 200 million of which were dumped into Tampa Bay.

All City Council members in attendance voted unanimously to approve the settlement. Council members Charlie Gerdes, Ed Montanari, Darden Rice, Steve Kornell, Gina Driscoll and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman all voted to approve. Council members Brandi Gabbard and Amy Foster were absent.

Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation sued the city in December 2016. No city employees faced criminal charges for their role in the sewage crisis.

According to the settlement, the city will donate $200,000 to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and build a $7.5-million wet weather force main and lift station, among other things.

Attorney Doug Manson spoke extensively on behalf of Manson Bolves Donaldson Varn, the law firm representing the city in the lawsuit.

Manson explained that his firm and the environmental organizations had more commonality than they did differences, and they were able to meet the requests of the environmental organizations.

Another aspect of the settlement is adhering to the city’s Integrated Water Resources Master Plan, a holistic master plan for every kind of water use in the city. One component of that plan is the Sewer System Asset Management Plan (SSAMP), a plan that, according to Manson, shortens the timeframe within which the city must operate and maintain its publicly-owned treatment works.

“This amended consent order adds specifics and timeframes that weren’t there before,” Manson said.

Manson also highlighted a wet weather flow mitigation program, and “microbial source tracking … to stop that source [of sewage] and improve the water quality,” Manson said.

“I highly recommend this settlement,” said Manson. “It’s a benefit to the city, and it’s a benefit to the environment.”

The settlement includes an amended consent order that has been developed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and a stipulated order, both of which will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice for their review, comments and approval.

Council members acknowledged how the settlement can prevent such a sewage crisis from happening again.

“A lot of this is going to be learn as [we] go,” Gerdes said.

Rice urged the city to go above and beyond. “What can we do on our own without a lawsuit nagging us to do it?,” she asked.

“Under these circumstances, I welcome a layer of federal oversight over this issue,” said Kornell.

“In the past, other administrations didn’t do as much as they could have,” he added. “It’s good that we have groups out there that care about these … issues.”

Full details of the settlement can be found here, beginning on the 54th page.

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