St. Petersburg’s infamous sewage crisis will now be the subject of its own documentary on the silver screen.
St. Pete Unfiltered is about the city’s outdated and overwhelmed sewage system releasing up to 1 billion gallons from 2015-16, and its set to premiere this weekend at the Gasparilla International Film Festival.
The 35-minute film examines the decision-making leading up to the spill, specifically the decision by city officials to shut down one of four wastewater treatment facilities in 2015. The film also examines the environmental consequences and impact of the spills, which sent up to 200 million gallons into the waters of Tampa Bay.
"There needs to be a larger public outcry, we think," said Caroline Smith, 33, the film’s executive producer and resident of St. Petersburg for a decade.
The film was borne from a desire to educate, Smith said. She was in an environmental law class at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in the fall of 2017 when the spills came up.
"And a lot of the students didn’t even know the issue had happened," Smith said. So a group of students started researching the film as part of a class project, but kept working on it after the semester ended to finish it.
The documentary takes viewers from the closure of the Albert Whitted treatment plant in April 2015 to the first spills four months later. The City Council actually voted to close Albert Whitted in 2011, and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration carried out that decision in 2015.
Soon afterward, heavy rains overloaded the wastewater system, leading to massive releases through the rest of 2015 and into 2016.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation determined that the city committed 89 felonies and 103 misdemeanors through the crisis, though no individual city officials were identified.
The FWC report blamed the Kriseman administration for closing Albert Whitted and for making other bad calls during the crisis — but also blamed the city’s two-decade failure to invest in its own sewage system.
In July 2017, St. Petersburg reached a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in which it must spend $326 million to fix the problems. Sewage was a big issue in the 2017 mayoral election, but Kriseman still won re-election over former Mayor Rick Baker.
Smith, though, said nobody has been truly held accountable for what happened.
"But we feel very confident this will make the noise that will make the change," she said.
City officials point out, however, that the public works administrator abruptly retired in 2015 and the mayor suspended, then fired, the water resources director at the height of the spills in 2016.
The film also explores the environmental impacts of injection wells, through which the city pumps waste deep into the aquifer, Smith said. During the sewage crisis, the city pumped up to 800 million gallons of partially-treated sewage underground.
The filmmakers interviewed City Council members Darden Rice and Steve Kornell. They also interviewed experts, including a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather scientist, environmentalists and a microbiologist. The experts, Smith said, provide evidence that ties the spills to environmental damage.
The filmmakers have gotten less cooperation from the Kriseman administration, however — and no on-camera interview.
"That’s the big question that we get," she said. "Did you reach out to the mayor? We tried over a four month period. Over and over again.
"I was surprised that even the spokesperson who was hired for this issue, he didn’t want to talk to us either."
Public works administrator Claude Tankersley said he and public works spokesman Bill Logan, who was hired during the sewage crisis, met with a group of USFSP students, but according to city emails that group was working on a different project. Smith said those students were not affiliated with her film, and that neither Logan nor Tankersley returned her team’s phone calls or emails, except to decline an interview.
The city did provide the students with written answers to questions.
There was also some dispute about a city employee attending what Smith said was a student-only viewing of the film on the USFSP campus. Logan said he believed that employee went because she saw it advertised and didn’t know it was for students only.
To try to build some hype ahead of Saturday’s premiere, the production team bought a billboard that can be seen from northbound Interstate 275 between downtown and 22nd Avenue N.
It features the movie’s logo: a pelican with toilet paper on its beak.
Smith said the movie isn’t meant to spoil St. Petersburg’s reputation as being a clean, green city. Rather, it’s to hold the city to its own standard.
"It’s a little hard putting something like this out there," she said. "It’s negative, about a city that I adore and I love living in."
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that a city official retired and another was fired during the sewage spills.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.