St. Pete's public works chief: City should reopen waterfront sewage plant permanently
Three months ago, after Tropical Storm Colin forced the city to dump 10 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay, Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley recommended that the city spend a little to create a limited amount of emergency storage at a waterfront sewer plant.
Then came Hurricane Hermine and another 150-odd million gallons of sewage dumped into local waterways. A state investigation. A public clamor.
On Thursday, Tankersley reversed course, saying his recommendation was that the city reopen the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment facility permanently.
“Let’s make it a permanent plant, that’s my personal recommendation,” Tankersley told council members exasperated with the city’s 14-month sewage crisis that has resulted in about 200 million gallons of sewage discharged into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays, retention ponds and city streets and parks.
Mayor Rick Kriseman had wanted to convert the plant, shuttered in April 2015, into a fish farm, burnishing his credentials as a green mayor. That plan was temporarily abandoned after Colin. Now, that plan appears dead.
To reopen Albert Whitted by the beginning of next year’s rainy season in June 2017, it would cost about $11 million, according to preliminary, rough estimates. The procurement process would have to be sped up and the state would have to allow the city to dispose of wastewater that doesn’t meet reclaimed standards or “reject water” by pumping it down injection wells.
The state hasn’t given that okay. In fact, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection told the city it had to build a storage tank to hold the “reject water,” which it deemed too dirty to pump deep underground. That was the main reason the city decided to close Albert Whitted in the first place.
“I think there might be way of working with DEP meeting the spirit of law without building huge a tank,” Tankersley said. “Maybe we permit the plant at a lower volume than it can actually handle. Maybe we can recirculate water if it hasn’t been retreated rather than storing it.”
Eventually, the city would have to figure out how to store the reject water and the total cost would doubtless rise, but Tankersley said he wanted to focus on the short term first to minimize future spills and dumps.
Such confidence in reopening Albert Whitted is newfound. In July, Tankersley and consultants downplayed any chance of reopening the plant, comparing it to a 1940s jalopy rusting in a field without tires or an engine.
Council member Ed Montanari asked Tankersley to explain his change of heart.
Tankersley replied that he thought an expedited procurement process and not worrying about storage capacity made the timeline shorter and the bill cheaper.
Some council members voiced skepticism that Mayor Rick Kriseman’s latest solution would work.
Steve Kornell said he was tired of shifting explanations from the mayor’s administration.
“We could have done this three months ago. This is an emergency,” Kornell told Tankersley. “We need to get on this with a sense of urgency that we have not had to date.”
Council member Charlie Gerdes, whose west St. Petersburg district was inundated with a 58 million gallon that Kriseman originally claimed wasn’t even sewage before backtracking, said Albert Whitted wasn’t the only fix needed.
“Albert Whitted cannot be the singular focus,” Gerdes said. “The 58 million gallons spilled at Northwest had nothing to do with Albert Whitted.”
City Council chairwoman Amy Foster ticked off a laundry list of initiatives that the city had launched since the first spills in August 2015: A comprehensive study of the sewer system’s weaknesses; an expansion of the city’s Southwest sewage plant, plans to address private sewer lines that connect from homes to the city’s sewers.
She said she feared public pressure and a sense of crisis was forcing the city to move too fast, risking shoddy decision making.
“We need to temper our urgency with the need to get it right,” Foster said.
Tankersley said past mistakes made by former staff-----Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt, Engineering Director Tom Gibson and Public Works Administrator Mike Connors---put the city in a position where it couldn’t wait.
A state investigation is underway, including a probe by the state’s environmental police, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“If we can address our acute needs, I’m hoping it will buy us some time,” Tankersley said.
Tankersley said he would bring back more concete proposals for Albert Whitted to the City Council at its Oct. 20 meeting.