St. Petersburg has spilled 2 million gallons of wastewater in the last three months

Since September, city officials have documented six spills. The largest contaminated a park lake.
Published December 7

ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly 230,000 gallons of wastewater spilled from a tank Monday at one of the city's water treatment plants.

Those are just the latest of nearly 2 million gallons of wastewater to gush from city infrastructure in the last three months.

That includes an incident that stretched from August into September, when workers at another facility discovered that a line that should have sent wastewater used in the reclamation process back to the beginning of the plant for retreatment had instead been connected straight to the stormwater system. Over a period of 50 days, almost 1.7 million gallons of wastewater were inadvertently dumped into a nearby pond before the accident was noticed, according to the city's report to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Between those incidents, records show there were four other spills. The six discharges, which include three over a three-day period in October, are the latest examples of the city struggling to overcome the 2015-16 sewage disaster in which it released up to a billion gallons of waste — 200 million gallons of which ended up in Tampa Bay. They also come amid a change in the city's public notification practices: It no longer notifies the public about spills that don't leave facility grounds.

THE BEGINNING: Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

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The error that caused the 1.7 million gallon spill actually happened in February, according to public works spokesman Bill Logan.

To prepare for the installation of new water reclamation filters at the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility in Jungle Terrace, contractors ran a pipe to a manhole on plant property. The pipe sat dormant until the filters became operational on Aug. 7.

The pipe was meant to carry backwash water from the filters to the sewer. Backwashing is the process of cleaning the filters, which are like fine mesh sieves — reclaimed water flows over the filters to clean off any gunk and detritus. Wash water is supposed to travel via piping to a sewer line, which would return the water to the beginning of the plant so it could be treated again.

Except the contractors didn't connect the pipe to a sewer manhole, but to a stormwater drain that goes straight to the pond at nearby Walter Fuller Park. The correct and incorrect manholes were a few feet apart, Logan said.

It took workers 50 days, until Sept. 27, to notice the mix-up. They discovered the problem during an inspection of the facility's stormwater system. The problem, city staff discovered, was that the manhole wasn't clearly marked, Logan said. Sewer manholes are supposed to be green, electrical manholes red. Stormwater manholes are left unpainted.

"Once we found the mistake, we checked every manhole, every pipe in the whole plant," said Water Reclamation Operations Specialist Frank Niles. "This situation with the contractor caused us to look at how we do things."

Niles said 1.7 million gallons is 0.1 percent of the volume of water the city reclamation plants processed during that 50-day period. But it was enough to raise the levels of E.coli and fecal coliform in the park's lake. Workers put up signs along the edge of the park warning passersby of contaminated water. The signs remained until Oct. 22, once pollution levels returned to normal, Logan said.

The Department of Environmental Protection waived a $250,000 fine as long as the city and contractor carry out a pollution prevention plan. The details of that plan have not been finalized, Logan said, but already workers have cleared vegetation from the banks of the lake. Logan said the contractor will do that work for free.

"It's not an insignificant amount of water" that spilled, Niles said. "It broke all of our hearts, really."

LEAKY PIPES: Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

NO CHARGES: No criminal charges in St. Pete’s 1 billion gallon sewage crisis (Oct. 27, 2017)

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Three other spills were also caused by contractors.

On Oct. 14, about 21,000 gallons of wastewater poured from a pipe at the southwest plant on Oct. 14 after an inflatable plug meant to seal the pipe deflated. The water flowed into a construction pit and was pumped back into the plant for retreatment. None of the water left the property, according to the city's report to the Department of Environmental Protection.

On Oct. 15, about 2,000 gallons leaked after a contractor punctured a pipe while digging near an injection well at the southwest plant. Most of that percolated into the ground, but about 500 gallons made it to the street and into the stormwater system.

On Nov. 23, about 10,000 gallons leaked at the southwest plant after a high-pressure pump blew off a pipe from a tank.

Call it the "growing pains" of trying to fix so many problems at once after the crisis came to a head a few years ago, Niles said.

"We have a lot of active projects going on side by side," he said. "We have contractors stepping over contractors."

There were two more spills that weren't caused by contractors. On Oct. 13, A 4-inch wide reclaimed water pipe sprang a leak along Harrisburg Street in Shore Acres, spilling about 3,000 gallons.

And the most recent spill, which sent 226,000 gallons of wastewater into a pond at the northeast facility on 62nd Avenue NE was caused by a city employee who left the machinery in maintainence mode. A tank, which under normal operations feeds the reclaimed water distribution system or the injection wells, was prevented from draining and it overflowed.

Workers pumped the pond water back through the plant.

RISING RATES: Utility bills will rise for St. Pete residents -- and keep rising (Nov. 9, 2017)

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Pete says discharge never reached the bay. Its own report says otherwise.

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Since the city's sewage crisis, officials have consistently promised to go above and beyond what's required by state law when it comes to reporting spills to the public.

Now they're walking back that commitment.

State law requires cities and businesses that spill wastewater and chemicals to report it to the Department of Environmental Protection, which posts those incidents on a public website. The city had been taking the extra step of also posting notices after all its spills on its own website and through its social media channels.

But city officials did not publish notifications after two of the latest incidents — the 21,000 gallon Oct. 14 spill and the 10,000 gallon Nov. 23 spill. The reason, Logan said, is that both were contained to reclamation facility property.

In fact, Logan said, as of about two months ago, that's the new standard for reporting spills.

"If it does have any impact on our citizens we certainly let them know," he said. "But if it does remain on our treatment plant, then there's no reason to alert citizens. ... Because there's no need to notify things that don't really affect someone."

Why not continue to report everything?

"In doing that, we created a situation where everything, even a diminutive spill, got the notification," he said, "and we didn't want to be the boy that cried wolf."

And, he added: "There's no sense making bullets for people to shoot at us."

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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