Frustration rises as Tampa Bay area sewage toll grows

Counties and city governments face fallout from huge sewage spills.
Published September 14 2016
Updated September 14 2016

It's a contest no city or county wants to win: Who dumped the most sewage after Hurricane Hermine brushed by Tampa Bay nearly two weeks ago?

On Tuesday, Pasco County vaulted into second place on that grisly list. Pasco officials on Tuesday said they spilled 36.8 million gallons, pushing the city of Clearwater's 31.7 million gallon dump to third place.

St. Petersburg dumped more than those two utilities combined — at least 70 million gallons into Tampa Bay over eight days — to retain its dubious title.

The official total of spilled sewage — which is growing each day — currently sits at 172 million gallons. Some of it was untreated, most of it treated to some degree, before it ended up where it shouldn't — in the region's waterways, watersheds and neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice has proposed the formation of a countywide sewer task force to bring together the 14 public and three private sewer systems in Pinellas County to assess sewage woes. That county's utilities have spilled a total of 133.4 gallons, the lion's share of the sewage released so far.

"I believe that this collective task force could facilitate more beneficial outcomes through greater collaboration, closer communication and mutual support when needed, as well as enabling all task force partners to better solve the key wastewater system issues we face: capacity and inflow/infiltration," Justice wrote in a memo Tuesday.

The commission is set to discuss the sewage issue at today's meeting.

"Something needs to be done," Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said. "Cities can't do this on their own."

The Environmental Protection Agency is aware of the massive spills, a spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday, but at this time the federal agency is not considering taking any action.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, however, is finalizing a consent order with St. Petersburg over its troubled sewerage system. A consent order is usually an agreement between a city or county and the state on a plan to fix a chronic, severe problem with its sewers. If a utility doesn't comply, it can be fined.

Largo, for example, is still working to satisfy a 2006 order. Pinellas County had an order imposed in 2010, but is now free of state oversight. St. Petersburg operated under state supervision in the 1990s.

Hermine made landfall in North Florida on Sept. 2. But in Pasco, the spill started the day before at the Embassy Hills plant when heavy rains forced partly treated sewage into a storage pond, which overflowed two days later. The wastewater had been treated with chlorine but had not been filtered.

"The filter capacity was just exceeded,'' said Flip Mellinger, Pasco County's assistant county administrator for utilities. "No way we could handle it.''

The sewage overflowed to an adjoining ditch that eventually makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The plant resumed normal operations Sept. 7.

In St. Petersburg, the state said again Tuesday that it had discussed a pending consent order with city officials in June after Tropical Storm Colin. City officials, however, again denied that they were informed about the order.

DEP Southwest District director Mary Yeargan said the agency discussed with city officials "memorializing their plans in a document that would be signed by both parties."

The agency says that's how it usually handles utilities with "noncompliance issues." Those agreements also lay our remedies and time lines to bring facilities back into compliance. The DEP, however, said it has not yet shared a draft with St. Petersburg.

Yeargan said the order would be finalized in the very near future.

The city officials at the June meeting, Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley and Water Resources director Steve Leavitt, again Tuesday denied through a city spokesman that they were told about the impending order.

Despite its denials, however, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city will cooperate with the DEP when it receives that order.

On Monday, the city estimated that it had spilled 70 million gallons of waste. However, that amount could grow even more because of problems at the city's Northwest sewerage plant. That overflow lasted for five days after the storm dumped a still-unknown amount of mostly treated wastewater after storage tanks filled up. The excess was diverted into the stormwater system, Leavitt said, and eventually ended up in Boca Ciega Bay.

That sewage may have ended up near the plant, in the yards of residents in the Azalea neighborhood. Resident Bruce Weber said Tuesday the wastewater ran in sheets across the road and ended up flooding his yard.

"Instead of talking about our precious bay, let's about the sewage that was running down our streets," said Weber, who lives along 22nd Avenue N.

The city didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday about whether sewage was spilled from the Northwest plant into nearby neighborhoods, and if so, how much was released.

More than 40 manholes across the city also overflowed with untreated sewage between Aug. 31 and Sept. 7, officials said. Those amounts also have not yet been determined, city officials said, but that will likely add to St. Petersburg's 70-million-gallon estimate.

Meanwhile, residents are voicing their frustration.

A small group from the Historic Old Northeast crashed a community presentation about the redevelopment of the downtown pier to voice frustration about the sewage spills.

Martha Collins brought her two young daughters with her to voice her concerns. One of the daughters was supposed to participate in a regatta over the weekend, but it was canceled because of the sewage.

"I want my girls to be able to swim in clean water," Collins said.

Josh Lezcano said, as someone who doesn't eat meat, that he relies on fish he catches from the waters of Tampa Bay. But he said he's afraid to fish.

"That put a big dent in my protein consumption," he said. "I'm down to vegetables."

Times staff writers Mark Puente, C.T. Bowen, Barbara Behrendt, Kathryn Varn, LaVendrick Smith and Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

 
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