ST. PETERSBURG — As the city grapples with the aftermath of two consecutive summers of massive sewage overflows, much of the attention has been focused on whether it should reopen the shuttered Albert Whitted waste-water treatment facility.
City staff, council members and activists have also spent hours vetting the massive expansion under way at the Southwest sewage plant.
But what about the Northwest plant?
That facility had its own massive spill during last year's crisis, enraging residents and eroding trust in Mayor Rick Kriseman.
After Hurricane Hermine dumped heavy rains on the city in September, sewage flowed into neighborhoods, across 22nd Avenue N and into nearby Walter Fuller Park.
The city posted some warning signs, but otherwise didn't notify residents.
Kriseman initially claimed residents didn't need to be notified that 58 million gallons of overflowing sewage was running through the streets because he said it was reclaimed water.
A week later, the mayor said he was wrong. The city reclassified the spill as partially-treated sewage.
Now the city is spending $16 million on upgrades at the Northwest plant to try to prevent more spills in the neighborhoods near the plant in west St. Petersburg. After Hurricane Hermine dumped heavy rains on the city in September, sewage flowed into neighborhoods, across 22nd Avenue N and into nearby Walter Fuller Park.
In previous storms, the plant had no problems. But Hermine's rainfall caused a bottleneck to develop at the plant's filters, preventing the water from being treated. Eventually, the partially-treated sewage flowed into streets, yards and into stormwater drains, ultimately ending up in Boca Ciega Bay.
The city plans to drill two new injection wells to dispose of treated sewage deep underground and add more filters to increase the plant's capacity to treat sewage from 40 million gallons a day to 55 million gallons a day.
If all goes as planned, the work should be done by summer.
"If the stars align, fingers crossed," said interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar. He said the expansion at the Northwest plant mirrors the efforts to increase capacity at the Southwest plant.
The Northwest plant needs plenty of work. During Hermine, one of the plant's clarifying tanks —which helps treat sewage by allowing solids to settle — was out of service, exacerbating the situation. That clarifier hadn't been working for as long as chief plant operator Sylvia Rosario had been at the plant.
"It was at least five years," she said.
Since the spill, Palenchar said, that clarifier has been fixed.
To dig the two new injection wells, drilling rigs will be operating at the plant around the clock every day of the week for about a year, although the work could be done within eight or nine months, said Public Works spokesman Bill Logan.
Some residents will likely hear the construction noise, Rosario said. When workers were cleaning a filter recently, residents complained about the noise, she said.
"They have to make a choice: do they want to put up with the noise for a year or risk another overflow?" Rosario said.
So far, public opinion has been muted. A recent information session at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center drew a handful of residents. But one of them, Liz Francis, who lives in Jungle Terrace, said the city should expect some noise complaints.
"Trust me, you'll have neighbors out there with noise meters and calling the police," Francis said.
The city will erect sound barriers and other mitigation devices to reduce the noise, but officials say limiting drilling to daylight hours would double the length of the project and eliminate any chance of adding disposal capacity before the rainy season.
Residents will see plenty of activity at the plant, 7500 26th Ave. N, over the next several years.
Kriseman has pledged to spend $304 million to fix the city's sewers by 2021. Nearly $59 million of that is budgeted for the Northwest plant.
The city has some trust building to do in the neighborhoods there after September's spill.
"That didn't go over very well," Jungle Terrace Civic Association president Ed Carlson said. "It was definitely a communication failure."
But Carlson said the city has done much better of late.
"They communicated really well about what they're doing now," he said.
Palenchar said that the new injection wells and filters should give the city the ability to handle a storm like Hermine this summer. But if a rain event does overwhelm the plant, the new injection wells give the city an option it didn't have last year:
"If the call had to be made whether to send this down the streets or down the wells, both of them being a violation of our permit, we're going to choose going down the wells," Palenchar said.