Florida Senator Jeff Brandes held an open forum for Gulfport residents amid the continuing sewage saga on Friday, August 28 at Scout Hall.
Senator Brandes, a St. Petersburg native, listened to concerned citizens regarding the pumping of 15.4 million gallons of sewage into Clam Bayou and learned more about the situation.
“This is education for him,” Vice Mayor Yolanda Roman, who organized the event, said. “He will walk away educated on the situation.”
Senator Brandes received a warm welcome from the standing-room-only crowd.
“I’m excited to have this conversation,” Brandes stated. “At the end of the day, this is not a partisan issue, this is a community that needs to come together and I can serve as an important bridge between Gulfport and reaching out to the city to help facilitate the discussion to make sure these types of activities never happen again.”
St. Petersburg Councilmember Steve Kornell – who represents District 5, covering Lake Maggiore area to Pinellas Point and west toward the beaches – was also in attendance and spoke about several solutions from the city of St. Petersburg.
“There are several actions coming up,” Kornell said. “There’s a new tank in progress, there’s new pumps that are in progress, there’s a new lift station at Childs Park that’s in progress. Those are all things that are going to happen in the next two years.”
Kornell also admitted that poor planning on the part of St. Petersburg was partially to blame for the recent sewage overflows.
“Where I have a big problem is maybe we should have done some of those first before we closed Albert Whitted [water treatment facility]. That would have made some sense,” Kornell said.
Kornell also described a conversation he had with Steve Leavitt, St. Petersburg’s water resource department director, and admitted that the city was partially at fault.
“They said it was a ‘100-year weather event’ and I said, ‘Then why didn’t all of our plants overflow?’” Kornell said. “I was driving around. It was raining everywhere.”
Kornell explained that when he asked Leavitt how close the northwest water treatment plant was to overflowing, he was told that it was “close but didn’t overflow.” Kornell said it was safe to say that if St. Petersburg had diverted Albert Whitted to the northwest plant, as opposed to the southwest plant, that the northwest plant would have been the one that overflowed.
“We need to stop saying this was a ‘100-year weather event’ like we had nothing to do with it and let’s admit that we did. And we absolutely did. There were some choices made,” Kornell said. “If we don’t admit there was a problem, what chances are there that we’re going to fix the problem?”
The long-term solution, said Kornell, will come from St. Petersburg’s plan to realign their entire sewage pipeline, which is scheduled to be a 75-year project; a reasonable timeline for a city of St. Petersburg’s size.
“If you look at every [area] in the whole region – Tampa, Hillsborough, Pinellas – it would be a similar time frame,” Kornell said. “It is a regional problem that should be addressed in a regional way.”
Kornell also apologized to the public for the sewage pumping.
“I’m sorry that this happened,” he said. “No excuses, but we’re committed to finding a solution.”
The clean up effort is still in the hands of Mother Nature. Currently the plan is to allow the tides and rain to naturally wash away all the sewage.
“I would have to talk to an engineer to understand what type of funding could be available [for a clean up process], but it seems like what we need is time and water,” Brandes said. “And God seems to provide us with a lot of water lately, and I don’t know what else to do.”