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Tentative stormwater deal reached

Angry Westshore area residents gear up for legal challenge. They say the $1.2-million proposal doesn't do enough.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003

The Westshore area may soon get some help with its stormwater woes.

For angry residents, it's not enough.

Under a proposed deal between the city and the state Department of Environmental Protection, the city will install more than 20 devices aimed at removing canal-clogging muck. The cost will top $1.2-million.

The settlement, expected to be finalized any day, says the work must begin this year and be completed within five years.

The devices, called sediment traps, will be placed on the end of stormwater pipes throughout the Westshore area and should reduce the amount of sediment swept into canals from streets and construction sites. Residents say decades of unfiltered stormwater have plugged up canals, blocked boat access and smothered habitat for plants and animals.

The city says it's not at fault; it blames the tides for washing in sediment. But in the pending agreement, DEP orders the city to make Westshore a top priority among stormwater problems citywide.

"Someone else is finally saying what we've been saying all along," said Ellie Montague, a Beach Park resident and member of Neighbors Against Stormwater Pollution.

The city and DEP have been negotiating the deal since last summer, prompted by DEP's contention that the city is not doing enough to keep polluted stormwater from fouling Tampa waterways.

Under the proposed settlement, the city would agree to better control runoff from construction sites and industrial centers, and do more to control illegal discharges, such as septic tanks piping raw sewage.

In return, DEP won't take the city to court.

"The city will do a better job," Ralph Metcalf, director of the sanitary sewers department, said last week.

It also will pay $50,000 in fines, according to a draft agreement.

Last summer, DEP regulators said fines would top $100,000. It's not clear why that changed. DEP officials declined to comment about the fines or the inclusion of Westshore into the settlement.

The settlement says the fines will be waived if the city agrees to build even more sediment-catching structures, called sumps, in three ditches near Westshore. The city has indicated it is willing to do so.

The settlement does not address the issue of existing muck.

But residents see a link. They say it shores up their claim that the city made the mess -- and should clean it up, too.

By itself, the settlement is "like a Band-Aid on an amputation," said Sunset Park resident Howard Weber.

Residents already are gearing for a legal fight.

"We've got a formal document recognizing we're correct and the city needs to deal with this," said John Thomas, a St. Petersburg attorney representing the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association.

Metcalf didn't see it in the same light.

"Why (DEP) mentioned (Westshore) specifically, your guess is as good as mine," he said. "Does that mean it's worse there than any place else? Not necessarily."

DEP may have been motivated to include Westshore because "that appears to be where most of the pressure came from," he said.

Thomas was hired to represent Sunset Park as the city seeks a new stormwater permit from DEP. The existing permit expired in September 2001.

With the settlement clearing the way for a new permit, Thomas said he will explore other legal avenues to force the city to dredge the canals.

Last year, a consultant hired by the city concluded most of the muck in the canals was washed in by the tide, not stormwater.

A consultant hired by the Sunset Park residents refutes that, Thomas said. He said that consultant's finding will be released at a later date.

Meanwhile, Neighbors Against Stormwater Pollution, which represents other Westshore area residents, has also hired lawyers to sue the city.

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

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