ST. PETE BEACH — For the past month, when it rains or the winds blow, smelly, paper- and feces-laden sewage streams onto Gulf Boulevard near Gulf Winds Drive.
The immediate cause is the catastrophic failure of the two remaining working sewer system pumps at the city's Master Pump Station that happened in late October.
The chronic cause is the inability to provide enough continuous pumping power to offset water infiltration that is backing up the city's sewer system during heavy rains and high winds.
Portable pumps have failed several times, once because of vandalism.
Public works director Steve Hallock said Tuesday that he hopes the installation Friday of a new and secure portable pump will temporarily stop the sewage overflows.
A permanent fix at a cost of more than $500,000 is at least four months away.
Since Oct. 26, the sewage has spilled onto Gulf Boulevard at least four times, sometimes at a rate of hundreds of gallons. The last time the sewer system overflowed was Sunday, when about 50 gallons spilled onto the road.
Each time, sheriff's deputies blocked off the flooded portion of the road directly across from the Alden Suites resort while city workers fixed the problem and disinfected the street.
Meanwhile, residents of the nearby 282-unit Sylvette Condominiums at 6161 Gulf Winds Drive continue to endure the stench, street flooding and even sewage backups into toilets and bathtubs as high as the fourth floor.
"There is toilet paper, fecal matter in the streets, and the smell is atrocious," says Martin Ripans, interim manager and president of the condo association. "This is affecting our residents, who can smell it inside, especially on the ground floor."
Ripans says he is concerned that if the problem continues it will affect the city's tourism.
Another area resident, Jim Anderson, took pictures and sent them to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP sent investigators to the city last week to inspect the problem and is now demanding reports from the city each time there is a sewage overflow.
In an email to Anderson, DEP external affairs manager Ana Gibbs wrote that her agency can impose a "consent order" that would require the city to improve the sewer system.
"In all fairness to the city, the department must give the city an opportunity to provide information regarding the system and what is being done." Gibbs wrote, adding she anticipates future meetings with city officials.
The four failed pumps at the city's master pump station were installed in 2007 and should have lasted at least another decade, Hallock said.
The pumps at some of the city's other lift stations are not doing well either.
An engineering report prepared in August said that a number of pumps were "old technology," in "poor condition" and "fail two to three times a week from burnout and clogging."
At the time of purchase, the master station pumps met standard design specifications, but apparently that design was flawed, and the pumps — or their parts — are no longer available, Hallock said.
Last week, the City Commission authorized more than $500,000 in emergency spending to install portable pumps and to buy and engineer new permanent pumps at two pumping stations.
"I thought I could be frugal and get a few more years out of (the pumps). Our timing was off by about six months," Hallock told the commission.
Over the next year, the city plans to replace these and additional pumps at a cost of $2.65 million, as well as begin to address water infiltration.
Further improvements to the sewer system could cost $1 million a year, Hallock said.
Anderson, who is suing the city in an attempt to block implementation of the comprehensive plan, said the sewage spills are evidence that the city's infrastructure is not adequate to handle major redevelopment.
Hallock, though, said the system is operating at 50 percent of capacity. Once water infiltration is blocked, the system should last another 50 years, he said.
The city's 38.7-mile-long sewer system includes a master pump station and 16 smaller pumping stations to handle the sewage produced by up to 20,000 residents and tourists at the peak of the season.
A good portion of the system was installed in the 1950s, when the city was actually four separate cities that joined in 1957.