Swamped by rains, St. Pete dumps treated sewage into Tampa Bay

St. Petersburg releases treated wastewater after an overload from weekend storms.

Published August 11 2015
Updated August 11 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Faced with a wastewater system overwhelmed by weeks of torrential rainfall, the city dumped about 5.5 million gallons of treated sewage into Tampa Bay for eight hours beginning Sunday evening.

The wastewater — everything from toilet sewage, sink drainage and rainwater — was treated at the Albert Whitted plant before being pumped about 1,000 feet into Tampa Bay, said Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman Ben Kirby on Monday.

Pumping began about 8 p.m. Sunday and stopped at 4 a.m. Monday, he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Shuttered in April, the Whitted plant was reopened Sunday to handle the overflow, Kirby said.

The sewage was aired out to kill bacteria, chlorinated and screened after being pumped from the city's Southwest Water Reclamation Facility near Eckerd College. That facility had been swamped by increased flow after three weeks of heavy rain, forcing the city to divert 15.4 million gallons of untreated sewage into Clam Bayou last week.

Extra rain this weekend forced Sunday's emergency measure, Kirby said.

"It was a disaster event. The governor has declared the region a disaster area. An incredible amount of rainfall just overwhelmed systems around the region," Kirby said.

Nanette O'Hara, outreach coordinator for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a watchdog group for the bay, said the city's action wasn't surprising considering the extraordinary amounts of rain.

"Most of our local governments are having wastewater issues right now," she said. "This is a lot of old infrastructure that can't handle the load."

The group is noticing some minor impacts from municipal discharges and storm runoff from around the bay.

"We're already seeing greener water. We may see some substantial algae bloom," O'Hara said.

If enough algae blooms, there could be fish kills. And murkier water could kill off sea grass, recently measured at its highest levels in 60 years, she said.

"We're hopeful we're not going to lose too much," O'Hara said.

The city is already facing possible legal action from its discharge into Clam Bayou last week.

Thomas W. Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental lawyer, wrote Kriseman a letter recently asking that the city upgrade its wastewater system and enact an ordinance to prohibit discharging overflow wastewater into Clam Bayou.

The city's actions had been "intentional and loathsome," Reese wrote. He asked the city to reach a settlement agreement with his client, Cindy Davis, and enact a measure that would protect lower income and minority residents from sewage discharges and other adverse environmental hazards.

In a playground at the edge of Albert Whitted Park on Monday, Jocelyn Greenhalgh swung her youngest boy, 2-year-old Dalton, just to the north of the discharge.

She hadn't smelled anything in the water lapping nearby, but was concerned that the city was releasing sewage into the bay so close to where she and her children — including Bronson, 10, and Beckett, 9 — chose to spend a sunny lunch hour, watching planes and playing.

"That's gross. Why dump it right near a playground?" she said.

Tampa, despite having huge demands on its beleaguered system, didn't discharge any wastewater into the bay, said Brad Baird, administrator of the city's Public Works and Utility Services Department.

"In fact our treatment plant — given record flows of over 200 million gallons per day — performed like a champ," Baird wrote in an email.

The state's Department of Environmental Protection said Tampa, and nearly every other municipality, reported overflows of wastewater into waters other than Tampa Bay last week during the heaviest rainfall.

Tampa Electric and Clearwater reported small discharges into the bay last week, according to the agency.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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