St. Petersburg sewage fix: Pay $11 million to reopen closed Albert Whitted sewage plant

Reopen the Albert Whitted plant, St. Petersburg's top public works official says.
Signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park last month warned people to stay out of the water due to contamination from sewage released by the city's overwhelmed sewer system after Hurricane Hermine. Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council could discuss a streamlined fix for the city's sewage woes. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
Signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park last month warned people to stay out of the water due to contamination from sewage released by the city's overwhelmed sewer system after Hurricane Hermine. Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council could discuss a streamlined fix for the city's sewage woes. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published October 6 2016
Updated October 7 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — In August, 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, which last month caused the city to dump another 150 or so million gallons of sewage into local waterways last month. Public outrage and a state investigation resulted.

Tankersley reversed course on Thursday, recommending that St. Petersburg permanently reopen the shuttered Albert Whitted wastewater treatment facility.

"Let's make it a permanent plant," Tankersley told the City Council, whose members were exasperated with the city's 14-month sewage crisis. So far, the city has released about 200 million gallons of sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays, retention ponds and city streets and parks.

Mayor Rick Kriseman wanted to convert the plant, which was closed in April 2015, into a fish farm. That plan was temporarily abandoned after Colin. Now, it may be dead.

It could cost up to $11 million to reopen the Albert Whitted plant by the start of next year's rainy season in June 2017, according to preliminary 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.

But the state hasn't given that okay. In fact, the Florida 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 why the city decided to close the Albert Whitted plant in the first place.

"I think there might be a 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 dumps.

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 the reversal. 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 Kriseman's latest solution will work.

Steve Kornell said he was tired of shifting explanations from the mayor's administration.

"We could have done this three months ago," Kornell said. "This is an emergency. 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 sewage release, said the city needs to do more than reopen one plant.

"Albert Whitted cannot be the singular focus," Gerdes said.

City Council chairwoman Amy Foster feared public pressure and a sense of crisis was forcing the city to move too fast, risking shoddy decisionmaking.

"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 former public works administrator Mike Connors — put the city in a position where it couldn't wait any longer. Leavitt and Gibson were placed on unpaid leave last month. They could not be reached for comment. Connors has repeatedly declined to comment.

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," Tankersley said. "I'm hoping it will buy us some time."

Tankersley said he would bring back more concrete proposals for reopening Albert Whitted to the Oct. 20 council meeting.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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