ST. PETERSBURG — The city has spent two years embroiled in a sewage crisis that Mayor Rick Kriseman once described as a black cloud.
On Thursday, that cloud parted a bit.
The City Council learned that the federal government is no longer investigating the approximately 200 million gallons of sewage St. Petersburg has discharged into local neighborhoods and waterways since August 2015.
“The federal investigation is now closed with no charges being brought,” said assistant city attorney Joseph Patner, the city’s chief litigator. “It’s good news.”
Federal authorities appear satisfied with the $304 million worth of sewage system fixes St. Petersburg is implementing as part of its consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, according to the city.
City and state officials are still finalizing the terms of a consent order that will require the city to repair aging, leaky sewer pipes and greatly expand treatment capacity at its three sewer plants over the next few years or face stiff fines.
The city must also pay $810,000 in penalties or spend an equivalent amount on a pollution prevention project, either by reducing pollution or conserving the amount of waste it generates.
Just like any other investigation, Patner said, the federal probe into the city’s sewage problems could be reopened at a later date.
But the city isn’t in the clear yet.
The state criminal investigation led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is still ongoing. And the city must, of course, actually follow through with the consent order.
Finally, the city is also facing a federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of environmental groups for violating the federal Clean Water Act.
Kriseman wasn’t at the council meeting, but afterward he issued a statement.
“We remain focused on the fix for our city’s aging infrastructure and I am pleased that the federal investigation ended as I expected,” said the mayor, who is running for re-election this year.
Patner said the city had been “responsive and cooperative” with representatives from the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state wildlife commission. The federal officials said the proposed consent order between the city and the state was “detailed and meaningful,” Patner said.
Federal and city officials have divulged little about the federal investigation and now that it’s closed that is unlikely to change. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa declined to comment and St. Petersburg City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said she would not reveal any details of meetings between federal prosecutors and her office.
The city was never formally notified of when the federal inquiry started, Kovilaritch said, but she first learned it was closed on Wednesday.
Federal agents have interviewed city employees, though no details have ever been released. City lawyers met twice with federal prosecutors, Patner said. Once in the third week of April and again in the first or second week of May.
Council chairwoman Darden Rice pointed out that the city has actually added terms to the consent order, making it more burdensome for St. Petersburg to fulfill. But council members wondered if being proactive and taking that extra step actually helped the city avoid federal trouble.
“That’s somewhat unusual,” Rice said.
Kovilaritch agreed and said her office pointed that out to federal officials.
Rice wondered what more the city could do to avoid sanctions over the sewage mess:
“I’d like to know what else we could be doing that we could put in that consent order.”