St. Petersburg confirms more wastewater spilled during heavy rains

St. Petersburg reveals 15 million more gallons were spilled on Aug. 3.
Published September 18 2015
Updated September 20 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Add another 15 million gallons to the tally of wastewater dumped by the city during heavy rains last month.

The city previously disclosed that it had dumped 16.5 million gallons during a stretch of torrential downpours: 15.4 million gallons of untreated sewage into Clam Bayou on Aug. 3 and 1.1 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay six days later.

But it wasn't until this week that the city disclosed that it flooded Eckerd College's campus on Aug. 3 when it spilled an additional 15 million gallons of wastewater that had been disinfected, but not filtered.

The partially treated sewage was essentially reclaimed water, said Steve Leavitt, the city's water resources director. It wasn't cloudy and it had been cleaned of bacteria, he said.

For those scoring at home, that's now 31.5 million gallons of wastewater dumped by St. Petersburg during the early August rains.

The latest revelation came during Thursday's City Council meeting. Board member Steve Kornell demanded an explanation from staff as to why they had been telling the public that only 16.5 million gallons had been dumped when a higher total of 31.5 million gallons was disclosed in a series of reports to the state's Department of Environmental Protection last month.

Interim Public Works Administrator Tom Gibson seemed taken aback by the questions, telling council members he couldn't answer them. Minutes later, Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt minimized the spill by suggesting that other cities, not St. Petersburg, were the culprits. He said Gulfport and other beach towns, which operate under St. Petersburg's permit, could be responsible.

Yet on Friday, Leavitt conceded that the 15 million gallons were indeed dumped by St. Petersburg.

Kornell said later Friday he's had enough of the city's shifting explanations.

"They've tried to play this game," Kornell said. "First, it was treated, then partially, then maybe not. Then they said it was a 'weather event.' Then, Tampa did it worse. They've gone all around."

For that reason, Kornell on Thursday voted against spending $132,000 for prep work on a project at the city's Southwest wastewater treatment plant that will convert waste to electricity to power the plant and compressed natural gas for city vehicles, among other uses.

The measure passed by a 6-2 vote. Wengay Newton also voted against it.

As long as the staff isn't forthcoming about its miscues, Kornell said, he won't support adding capacity and potential hazards to the plant, which borders Eckerd College.

The Aug. 3 discharge flooded campus, but didn't cause any lasting damage, said Tom Scherberger, Eckerd's spokesman.

Still, it disrupted freshman orientation and forced the college to close its beach and Frenchman's Creek for ten days, he said.

The college and city are working at improving communication, Scherberger said.

"We've been working closely with the city to ensure this doesn't happen again," he said.

The city's sewers have fouled up politics at City Hall. Former Public Works Administrator Mike Connors abruptly retired shortly after the initial disclosure of the dumpings. Council members have criticized the decision, championed by Connors, to close the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant before an expansion of the Southwest plant was complete.

Because the addition of capacity at Southwest won't be complete until next summer, Kriseman ordered Albert Whitted to be reopened as an emergency storage facility.

The city is also planning to add more pumps and a new lift station to help manage sewer flows during storms.

Still, the council voted recently to have independent consultants evaluate the city's wastewater system. That study isn't yet under way, but Kornell said it can't start soon enough.

"I'm just disappointed," he said.

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

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