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Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled

By Charlie Frago
TRACEY MCMANUS | Times
Wastewater gushes from a manhole cover at Engman Street and Fairburn Avenue in Clearwater during Hurricane Hermine. The Marshall Street plant closed Thursday after being overwhelmed. 

Hurricane Hermine is gone, but it left the waters of the Tampa Bay area fouled with millions of gallons of sewage.

Around 5:15 a.m. Friday, hours after the storm struck the Florida Panhandle, Tampa's Howard F. Curren wastewater treatment facility lost power to its main and backup lines from Tampa Electric Co.

Before a backup generator was able to restore power 10 minutes later, city officials said, 938,000 gallons of partially treated sewage had spilled into Hillsborough Bay.

"It just shows you how high our flow was from the storm, that all those gallons overflowed in just 10 minutes," said Eric Weiss, Tampa's wastewater director.

If the power outage hadn't occurred, Tampa's system could have handled the unusually high sewage volume, Weiss said. The volume reached as high as 159 million gallons at peak flow.

The power outage led to overflows at two pump stations on the Hills­borough River as well. The amount of those spills has not been determined, Weiss said.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman said officials chose to dump millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay to avoid having it back up into people's homes and into the streets.

Like other systems around the bay area, St. Petersburg's aging sewer pipes often allow groundwater to seep in through cracks, which increases the volume of sewage released.

Kriseman held a news conference on Friday to discuss how the storm affected St. Petersburg but would not specifically say how much waste was released late Wednesday through Friday.

The mayor's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said, "We will release a final, accurate figure when it is complete."

The city also had raw sewage overflowing from manholes, Kirby said, and a clogged sewer pipe in Lakewood Estates on Thursday also led to a spill.

In Clearwater, city crews installed temporary pumps to allow incoming sewage to be treated at the Marshall Street plant, which shut down Thursday after being overwhelmed by the storm.

Those pumps will be in place until the city can assess the damage and figure out how to fix the pump station that broke down, city officials said Friday.

"Although the plant is not operating at normal levels, we are working toward getting back to normal operations. We will be able to assess the plant better when heavy storm rainfall diminishes and our influent flows return to manageable levels," said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli in a prepared statement.

The amount of sewage spilled is still being determined, she said.

In Largo, some manholes were still overflowing Friday, and the city was intermittently discharging partially treated sewage into Cross Bayou, said Irvin Kety, the city's director of environmental services. The city doesn't have flow meters on its discharge pipes, so it doesn't know the extent of the dump, Kety said, but the sewage had been treated except for removing some chlorine. A discharge estimate will be made in the coming days, he said.

Pinellas County utilities said another 20 manholes overflowed overnight. Officials estimate about 60,000 gallons were spilled. But the county didn't discharge any additional sewage into Joe's Creek. During the storm, it dumped 7.3 million gallons of mostly treated sewage into the creek, officials said.

Hillsborough County survived the storm without any overflows, said spokeswoman Kara Walker.

But Tarpon Springs, Brooksville, Port Richey and Hernando County all reported spills or dumps on Friday, though those amounts were not available.

Across the region, 28 spills and dumps totaling millions of gallons have been reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection since Wednesday afternoon.

Among those reports was Gulfport, which told the state on Friday morning that its sewage had fouled Boca Ciega Bay.

How badly have that bay's waters been polluted? City officials did not return a call for comment.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.