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The warning siren no one heard: St. Petersburg experienced a massive sewage dump in 2013

A rainy week in September 2013 provided a real-life stress test of the Southwest plant’s capacity to handle heavy flows.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2010)

A rainy week in September 2013 provided a real-life stress test of the Southwest plant’s capacity to handle heavy flows.

ST. PETERSBURG — Three years ago, the city experienced the equivalent of an air-raid siren warning about its impending sewage crisis.

In 2013, heavy rains forced public works officials to flush 10.5 million gallons of partially-treated sewage down into the ground using the injection wells at the Southwest wastewater treatment plant near Eckerd College.

The city's sewage system was at full capacity: all four wastewater plants were online and able to handle 68.4 million gallons a day. Yet St. Petersburg's system was still overwhelmed.

Fast-forward to 2016: the city's sewer system has released about 200 million gallons of sewage into neighborhoods and waterways over the past 14 months. Age finally caught up to the city's ancient pipes, but so did the now-infamous 2015 decision to close the Albert Whitted plant, slashing the city's sewage capacity.

Why, then, did St. Petersburg's top officials shutter a sewage plant and reduce capacity when the 2013 incident showed that the system could be overwhelmed even with all four plants operating?

No one heeded that 2013 warning, perhaps because elected officials and the public were never told about it.

• • •

The Tampa Bay Times couldn't find any St. Petersburg officials who recall the 2013 sewage incident that led to the pumping of 10.5 million gallons of waste — the equivalent of 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools — deep into the ground.

The three wells — up to 1,100-foot wells deep — at the Southwest treatment plant empty into the Floridan aquifer, city officials said, but not the part that provides drinking water to residents. Injection wells are used to dispose of excess reclaimed water or fully treated sewage.

Flushing partially-treated sewage down the wells is a violation of Florida's environmental rules. In the past, city officials have said pumping sewage down into the wells wasn't a viable option when plants are overrun by rain.

On Saturday, interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar said the incident, which happened before he joined the department, wasn't as bad as spills or dumps into neighborhoods or water bodies.

But he acknowledged that the discharge could be seen, in retrospect, as a warning bell about a system unable to cope with even moderate-to-heavy rainfalls.

"There have been indications of capacity issues for some time," Palenchar said.

The sewage pumped down the wells in the 2013 incident exceeded the amount dumped into Tampa Bay in June after the city was soaked by Tropical Storm Colin. That spill sparked a large public outcry, as did the massive spills that followed when Hurricane Hermine passed by in September. Yet the 2013 spill did not.

What makes the 2013 spill so important is that it happened while the city's waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant was still operating. About 18 months later, the city closed that plant, removing nearly 20 percent of the city's sewage capacity.

But after the sewage crisis fueled by Hermine's rains, the city now plans to reopen Albert Whitted by the start of the 2017 rainy season.

The question of whether Albert Whitted should have been closed at all lies at the center of St. Petersburg's sewage crisis.

Last month, Mayor Rick Kriseman said a 2014 consultant's study that included warnings about what could happen to the sewer system if the city closed Albert Whitted — predictions that were borne out in 2016.

The mayor said he never saw that report, and has called for an investigation as to why it was never brought to his attention. City council members say they also never saw the report, or it's prescient warnings.

But they may not have needed that report to recognize the precarious situation facing St. Petersburg's sewage system. The 2013 incident also could have provided that warning.

• • •

The rainy week in September 2013 provided a real-life stress test of the Southwest plant's capacity to handle heavy flows two years before the closure of the Albert Whitted plant. The 10.5-million gallon release of sewage appears to indicate that Southwest failed that test miserably.

After days of heavy, but not unprecedented rainfall, a surge of rainwater-engorged sewage flowed into the plant. The controlled discharge took place on Sept. 25, 2013.

The day after the dump took place, the city notified the state of the rules violation.

But then-Mayor Bill Foster doesn't believe he was ever informed of the dumping into the wells under his watch.

"I have no recollection of that event," Foster said.

Council members who served at that time also had never heard of it.

"I wasn't told about it. They should have told the council," said council member Steve Kornell, who has been at the forefront of monitoring the city's sewage problems, especially at the Southwest plant.

How did so much discharged sewage go unnoticed by the public? No one would have seen or smelled it underground.

That's quite unlike the sewage that coursed through streets in the Azalea neighborhood or the Eckerd College campus during later incidents. Nor would waterfront residents and visitors have reported the same kind of stench that emanated from the large plume of sewage that the city released into the waters of Tampa Bay.

Senior wastewater officials at the time of the 2013 spill are no longer at City Hall. Former public works administrator Mike Connors, who was there when Albert Whitted was closed in 2015, has retired. Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt and Engineering Director Tom Gibson were placed on unpaid leave while the city investigates what happened to the 2014 report, which was brought to light by a whistleblower.

Gibson and Connors declined to comment. Leavitt could not be reached for comment.

Kriseman took office in January 2014. He and other current city officials said they knew nothing about the 2013 discharge.

Council member Karl Nurse would have liked to have known. If he had, he would have looked at shutting down Albert Whitted in a far different light.

"If they had mentioned this you hope it would have set off the alarms," Nurse said.

Palenchar said, had he been in his current position in 2013, he probably wouldn't have reported the dump to the council considering it didn't discharge into public spaces. Instead, the department would have undertaken a corrective action plan, he said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

The warning siren no one heard: St. Petersburg experienced a massive sewage dump in 2013 10/23/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2016 1:01pm]
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