The Dark Side of the Sunshine State – Why Gulfport is Up Sh*T Creek

Photograph by Yolanda Roman, Gulfport City Council

GULFPORT, Fla. –  The sewage saga continues as the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg battle each other over water rights and protections when it comes to excess storm water, sewage overflow and where to put it. Earlier this month after Hurricane Hermine’s prolonged rains, St. Petersburg has once again been forced to make a stinky decision about what to do with all of its sewage they claim they do not have the capacity to hold. And, as they have in the past, St. Petersburg dumped their raw and partially treated sewage into Gulfport’s Clam Bayou, stirring turmoil among Gulfport residents.

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A City of St. Petersburg sewer manhole on the boarder of Gulfport/St. Pete cities lines, right outside Clam Bayou where the continued dumping takes place. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

The original feces fiasco began back in the spring of 2015 when St. Petersburg city officials closed a wastewater plant near Albert Whitted airport. They claim their intention was to redirect excess stormwater to the holding tanks near Eckerd College and they assured citizens the Eckerd facility could withstand the additional influx.

St. Petersburg Does What?!

Fast forward four months to August of 2015. After nearly 20 days of straight rain, in part due to Tropical Storm Colin, the City of St. Petersburg did the unthinkable: With so much water and sewage overflow, all of their tanks “full”, and nowhere to put the waste, St. Pete dumped 15.5 million gallons of both raw and partially treated sewage into Gulfport’s Clam Bayou.

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Raw sewage is seen floating in the waters of Clam Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport as a result of St. Petersburg’s dumping. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

What was even more shocking was the fact that St. Petersburg did not notify Gulfport officials until three days later. At that point, Wednesday morning, after many residents had spent their weekend fishing and swimming in Gulfport water, the city closed Gulfport Beach and all water access to Clam Bayou. Contaminants were so high, the waters surrounding Gulfport were deemed harmful and toxic. Later that month, the then-Public Works Director, Mike Connors, “retired after a brief meeting with Kriseman” and all eyes shifted to Claude Tankersley, who would later be promoted to Public Works Administrator.

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Warning signs posted throughout Clam Bayou and Gulfport Beach warn residents of the contaminated water after St. Petersburg’s dumping. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

Outrage swept through Gulfport as residents learned of the dumping, turning to their City Council and Mayor Sam Henderson to remedy the situation. Gulfport business owner and former Gulfport Councilwoman, Barbara Banno, organized a handful of the town’s citizens to step forward and attend Gulfport council meetings to demand St. Petersburg be held accountable for their actions. “It’s an environmental nightmare,” said Banno. “We need to be more proactive and diligent about protecting our greatest resources.” That fall, Banno announced she would challenge Henderson in the upcoming election for Gulfport’s mayoral seat. Her number one priority? Clam Bayou. Unlike her opponent, Banno vowed to cleaning up Clam Bayou, hold St. Petersburg responsible for their hazardous dumping and develop a strategy to prevent any future dumping into Gulfport waters, particularly in the cases of weather emergencies. “Holding St. Pete’s hand to the fire is critical,” she says. “They will not sign anything that guarantees that they will not do this again and I just find that unacceptable.”

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Gulfport business owner and former City Councilwoman, Barbara Banno, looks out over contaminated Clam Bayou. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

Gulfport’s Mayor Henderson claimed to have met with St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman “numerous times” to discuss the Clam Bayou issue. Their meetings were not open to the public nor were their conversations transcribed and made available to the citizens. In addition, Ben Kirby, St. Petersburg’s Director of Communications and spokesperson for Kriseman, confessed that his initial statements regarding the amount of sewage in the water dumped into Clam Bayou were “mischaracterized” and that the water was dirtier than he originally stated. When asked directly if keeping the Albert Whitted plant open would have help prevent the need to dump into Gulfport, Kirby said it was “speculative.” But he reassured the public, “We’re damn sure not pumping anymore sewage into Boca Ciega Bay.”

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No Dumping signs surround the retention ponds at Gulfport’s Clam Bayou but fail to prevent St. Petersburg from discharging into the water. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

Despite major public outcry, Mayor Kriseman refused to sign a legally binding document that would ensure St. Petersburg would never dump into Gulfport waters again. Throughout all of the “meetings” Henderson and Kriseman held, no resolution was ever reached holding the City of St. Pete accountable for the August 2015 dumping. And as for Kirby’s statements about “not pumping anymore sewage into Boca Ciega Bay”? That’s all relative.

But Why??

As Kriseman and Henderson kept the public in the dark, speculation grew as to whether the two mayors were revealing the entire truth their citizens. Some accused the city governments of being corrupt and hiding financial discretions. Others accused Henderson of playing up to Kriseman in an effort to gain his endorsement on a State seat in future elections. Regardless of the reasons behind why St. Pete never notified Gulfport and why Henderson and Kriseman did not work together to reach a resolution accommodating the public’s demands, no one will ever know.

Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski
Gulfport Beach, a popular tourist destination, closed during the height of Florida’s tourist season, due to contaminated water from St. Petersburg’s dumping. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

 

Another discharge occurred June 2016. And Gulfport was furious. Gulfport City Councilwoman, Yolanda Roman, has and continues to be a strong proponent of protecting Clam Bayou and surrounding Boca Ciega Bay. Roman, who supported Banno in Gulfport’s mayoral election, criticized Kriseman for denying that his own now-Public Works Administrator, Tankersley, admitted raw sewage from St. Petersburg was in the water, citing a previous WTSP 10 News interview. She also shamed St. Pete for going back on their word that they would never dump into Clam Bayou again. “They said never again will they dump into Clam Bayou,” she said in an interview with WTSP.   In addition to feeling frustrated that St. Pete never notified Gulfport about the sewage discharge the previous August, Roman said, “Do I sound a little bit angry? Perhaps. I should not find out what is happening in the City of Gulfport through your news crew. That’s how I found out.”

Until Next Time…

Just this week after Hurricane Hermine, news went public that St. Petersburg dumped into Clam Bayou yet AGAIN. This time, St. Pete claims a flow meter was stuck on the discharge pipes, thus preventing anyone from knowing exactly how much sewage was dumped into Clam Bayou this go around. It is estimated that upwards of 60 million gallons of sewage have been “spilled” or dumped since the initial dumping August 2015.

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Hurricane Hermine floods Gulfport along Shore Blvd. (Photo credit: Morgan Wujkowski)

While many of St. Petersburg’s own City Council members vent their frustrations and voice their  dumping discontent, Kriseman continues to blame the spillage on “leaky pipes” and his city’s failing infrastructure. Despite his $200 million-dollar proposal for fixes, the overall plan will take five years to complete and has yet to receive final approval to begin construction.

The take home message: Gulfport continues to be up sh*t creek. Literally.

St. Pete will continue to dump excess sewage and storm water into Clam Bayou until they figure out a feasible plan to manage their own waste or until they fix their tanks/sewage systems five years from now. Gulfport will continue to close its beaches and waterfronts after excessive rainfall due to toxically high contamination levels. And until either city has the self-respect to elect mayors that transparently represent the people instead of the politics, we can all look forward to more misinformation, negative impacts to our tourism and a heavy, rotting stank rolling off the waters in Gulfport nearly every time it rains.

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Sources:

Bradshaw, Kate. (7 Jan. 2016). Creative Loafing Tampa. Gulfport Mayor Gets Challenger Ahead of March Election. Retrieved Sept. 11, 2016 from http://www.cltampa.com/news-views/article/20764059/gulfport-mayor-gets-challenger-ahead-of-march-election

Deepen, Mike. WTSP News. (June 8, 2016.). St. Pete Criticized for How it Dealt With Raw Sewage in Clam Bayou. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2016 from http://www.wtsp.com/news/investigations/st-pete-criticized-for-how-it-dealt-with-raw-sewage-in-clam-bayou/237362179

Fargo, Charlie. (14 Aug. 2015). Recent Rains Expose a St. Pete Wastewater System in Disarray. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2016 from http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Recent-Rains-Expose-a-St-Pete-Wastewater-System-in-Disarray.html

Fargo, Charlie. (29 Jan. 2016). Tampa Bay Times. St. Pete names new Public Works Administrator. Retrieved Sept. 11, 2016 from http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/baybuzz/st-pete-names-new-public-works-administrator/2263208

Fargo, Charlie. (8 Sept. 2016). St. Petersburg Official: City May Never Know How Many Millions of Gallons of Sewage Was Dumped. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2016 from http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/st-petersburg-official-city-may-never-know-how-many-millions-of-gallons-of/2292857

Irwin, Janelle. (2 March 2016). Saint Peters Blog. Sam Henderson Releases Dates Locations of Clam Bayou Meetings. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2016 from http://saintpetersblog.com/sam-henderson-releases-dates-locations-clam-bayou-meetings/

Former Gulfport Mayor Mike Yakes Joins Barbara Banno’s Campaign Team. (Jan. 20, 2016).  Retrieved Sept. 11, 2016 from http://prosuzy.com/2016/01/barbara-banno-squares-off-with-incumbent-mayor-sam-henderson/

Sampson, Zachary T. (6 Aug. 2015). Tampa Bay Times. Raw Sewage Pumped into Clam Bayou Places St. Petersburg and Eckerd College at Odds, Again, Over Wastewater. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2016 from http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/raw-sewage-pumped-into-clam-bayou-places-eckerd-college-and-city-at-odds/2240328

WTSP News 10. St. Pete Putting Raw Sewage in Clam Bayou. June 8, 2016. Retrieved Sept. 9 2016 from http://www.wtsp.com/news/investigations/st-pete-putting-raw-sewage-in-clam-bayou/235803782

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