ST. PETERSBURG — As the city addresses the recent sewage crisis, much of the attention has been focused on whether it should reopen the shuttered Albert Whitted wastewater treatment facility.
City staff, council members and activists have also spent hours vetting the massive expansion underway at the Southwest sewage plant.
But what about the Northwest plant?
That plant also had its own massive spill during last year's crisis, enraging residents and eroding trust in Mayor Rick Kriseman. He initially claimed residents didn't need to be notified that 58 million gallons of overflowing sewage was running through the streets beyond warning signs because it was basically reclaimed water.
A week later, the mayor admitted the error, that the water was dirtier than the city initially reported.
Now the city is spending $16 million on upgrades at the Northwest plant to prevent a similar spill 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 able to be treated. Eventually, the partially-treated sewage flowed into streets, yards and into stormwater drains, eventually depositing the water into 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.
A public information session will be held at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday night to give residents a chance to learn about the upgrades and the opportunity to weigh in on the noise generated by the drilling rigs, which will be operating at the plant around the clock every day of the week for about a year.
Some residents will likely hear the construction noise, said chief plant operator Sylvia Rosario. 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.
Residents will see plenty 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 and nearly $59 million of that is budgeted for the Northwest plant.
The city has some trust building to do in the neighborhood 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.
Carlson would like to see the city install a temporary pipe that would divert any overflow in a future storm into Jungle Lake north of the plant.
"Anything but running into the streets," Carlson 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 gives 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."