ST. PETERSBURG — During his tight race for re-election, Mayor Rick Kriseman has repeatedly touted his efforts to fix the city’s sewer system as a success and cited the lack of massive sewage discharges during Hurricane Irma.
But the mayor says he did not know until recently that after the September storm, the city’s Northeast sewage plant flushed 15.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage down injection wells deep into the aquifer.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection considers that to be a sewage discharge, just like the massive releases the city experienced in 2015 and 2016. It is also a violation of state regulations, even though it went underground instead of ending up in waterways and city streets like past spills.
Does this change Kriseman’s opinion of his efforts to improve the city’s sewage system?
"No," mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby said.
The state of St. Petersburg’s sewage system has been a huge issue in Kriseman’s re-election fight against former Mayor Rick Baker. The city’s wastewater system released up to 200 million gallons of sewage over 13 months in 2015 and 2016. About 100 million gallons was released into Tampa Bay.
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In July, the city agreed to a state consent order that required it to spend $326 million to fix its leaky, outdated and inadequate sewage system. Residents will find out after next month’s election how much their utility bills will go up to help pay for that cost.
So far, the city has spent $70 million to fix the system.
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Irma hit southwest Florida on Sept. 10. The next day, Sept. 11, the city reported a minor spill at the Northeast plant. Two days later, the city revised its report to the state and included the 15.5 million gallons on Sept. 13.
Last month’s discharge was the biggest since the 2015-16 sewage releases.
City Council member Steve Kornell alerted the public about the news on Facebook on Oct. 19. Baker responded to that post Saturday, once again criticizing the Kriseman administration.
"I am disappointed to see citizens’ hard earned money spent to hire a PR person to spin the truth about the continuous environmental damage in our city," Baker wrote. "That money would be better spent fixing the problem. Instead our current Mayor spends money to attempt to wash the issues away. Problems with your sewer system during a hurricane might be understandable — but misleading the public is inexcusable."
The city is allowed to flush only reclaimed water down its wells. But this sewage was not disinfected properly with chlorine or tested for dangerous bacteria before being pumped into underground injection wells or storage tanks. About 5 million gallons was sent into the tanks. So altogether, 20.5 million gallons wasn’t properly disposed of after Irma.
Irma also caused a 430,000-gallon spill on the Northeast plant’s grounds at 1160 62nd Ave. NE.
The underground discharge violated state regulations and might land the city another fine on top of the $820,000 imposed for the 2015-16 mess.
DEP officials will meet with the city on Nov. 8 — the day after the mayoral election — to determine how to prevent future discharges of partially treated sewage down into the wells. State officials will also see if the city needs to spend even more money to fix its wastewater system, said agency spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.
The incident also has the DEP contemplating whether it needs to require cities and counties to notify the public of injection well discharges, just as they are required to do with the spills and controlled discharges that St. Petersburg experienced during the 2015-16 sewage crisis.
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Public Works spokesman Bill Logan initially said there was no reason to inform the public about the final totals of the spills, as there was no public health risk because it went underground. Later, he said it was because he wasn’t told of the extent of the discharge until this week.
However, the city doesn’t actually know what the health risks were. Sewer officials said the hurricane prevented them from monitoring ammonia levels or testing for fecal coliform, which determine how much dangerous bacteria is in the sewage.
The state changed it rules on injection wells in 2005 at the behest of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA made the change because evidence showed some of the wastewater can seep into underground sources of drinking water.
The only notice from the city of the Sept. 11 discharge was a note about the city "disposing low chlorine residual water" through the injection wells at a rate of 500,000 gallons per hour at the bottom of a news release. The flushing took 20 hours, according to the city’s updated notice to the DEP on Sept. 13.
When the Times inquired this week about the discharge, Logan posted an update about the discharge to the city website Wednesday afternoon.
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Kornell decried the city’s lack of transparency about last month’s sewage discharge.
"I understand that during a hurricane, these kinds of things can happen. But we should always be completely and 100 percent honest with the public," he said Wednesday. "Saying there were no major problems and then having this one and not telling people? I don’t see why we continue to do that sort of thing. It’s ludicrous."
Interim Water Resources director John Palenchar took the blame for failing to inform the public. In hindsight, he said that was wrong. He said Logan, whom Kriseman hired in December to inform the public about sewage issues, did not know about the extent of the spills until the Times’ inquiry.
"We should have circled back and closed the loop on that," Palenchar said. "That’s my fault."
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.