City sewer plants on Stevenson's Creek and Tampa Bay have discharged wastewater into local waterways that has violated state water quality standards and posed a threat to marine life, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
As a result, the city faces a fine of up to $100,000, DEP officials say.
The violations, characterized as serious by DEP, have occurred off and on since at least June 2000, records show, and possibly longer.
If the city can't correct the problems, state regulators propose that Clearwater may have to stop discharging wastewater into local waterways as early as the end of 2004.
The state will allow Clearwater to avoid paying the fine if it spends 1.5 times the penalty amount on a project to improve the waterways, such as planting sea grass beds.
City officials learned of the size of the potential fines Wednesday. In explaining the violations, they emphasized the discharges in question involved quantities of compounds measured in parts per billion and have been toxic only to very small organisms, not to people or fish.
City officials also said they think Clearwater has been proactive in addressing the problems with Clearwater's three wastewater treatment plants.
"We have been aggressive in trying to deal with the problem; and that includes going to DEP, laying the cards on the table and explaining here is our plan to resolve them," said Andy Neff, who inherited issues with the city's sewer plants when he took over the city's public utilities department last year. "Our intention is to resolve the problem, not fight about it."
The city and state regulators have been discussing the wastewater violations since May, when the DEP informed Clearwater its plants were "significantly out of compliance" with state requirements. Problems included sloppy record-keeping, errors in reports and lack of calibration of equipment.
The other major problem is that the city needs to do a better job filtering and disinfecting its discharges of treated wastewater into Tampa Bay and Stevenson's Creek.
The problems with cleansing the wastewater have caused the city to violate water quality standards that have been in place for a decade, according to Ed Snipes, who manages the DEP's domestic wastewater program.
But until last summer, the DEP wasn't enforcing some of the standards, and the city had been without official permits for its sewage plants since September 1998, when its previous permits expired. It is unclear for how long the city has been violating the standards.
When new treatment plant permits were issued in June 2000, the city suddenly had to begin testing the levels of copper and trihalomethanes, byproducts of disinfecting wastewater with chlorine, which had been flowing into local waterways from the city's sewer treatment plants.
The city had trouble meeting very strict standards for the compounds. Clearwater also has had higher than allowed levels of fecal coliforms, organisms found in waste that can indicate discharges are not being adequately disinfected, during the past year in its treatment plant discharges, records indicate.
Neff says that the city has proactively tried to fix the problems. This summer, the city hired consultants to study how to reduce copper from entering the city's sewer system. And in August, Neff said, the city began a $73,000 pilot study to determine if different chemicals would be more effective than gaseous chlorine at disinfecting the city's discharged wastewater.
Results won't be known for a few months, but city officials are optimistic that a relatively low-cost change in disinfection can resolve most of the problems _ without expensive modifications to the city's sewer treatment plants that could include building an elaborate filtration system to cleanse discharges.
The DEP's Snipes said he agrees that the city has been proactive. Because of the good-faith effort made by the city to fix the problems, the DEP already has reduced the fines the city could have paid by at least $10,000.
But being proactive seems to be a new push. The fallout from the problems has caused some major shakeups in staffing in the city's utilities department, records show.
The assistant director of the public utilities division resigned in September, after being scolded by Neff in a letter earlier this year for lacking "key management skills" such as being able to forecast problems and find solutions.
Neff wrote that the supervisor knew the city would have problems with water quality when the new treatment plant permits were issued but that he did not do anything about it until state regulators began warning the city about water quality violations.
The city's wastewater lab supervisor also resigned in August, rather than be fired, because she had failed to correct performance issues including problems with late reports, trouble sticking to tasks and poor communication skills, according to letters in her personnel file.
Neff declined to discuss the staff changes specifically.
"We have pushed for more accountability on our staff's part, to try to energize the staff about what needs to happen and when it needs to happen, and be proactive in having our staff try to aggressively address issues," Neff said. "We're working to change the culture in the organization and move it to a different level of performance."
The city and the DEP are still in negotiations as to what the actual fine will be for the problems with the city's plants, Neff and Snipes said.
So far, the DEP has only informed the city it faces a $32,000 fine for problems at the Marshall Street plant in North Greenwood, which discharges into Stevenson's Creek. But Snipes said fines of similar amounts are likely to be imposed for the city's other two plants, bringing the total penalty to as much as $100,000.
The other two plants are off the Courtney Campbell Parkway and near the Countryside area on the east side of McMullen Booth Road. A pipe from the northeast plant carries wastewater to be discharged into Tampa Bay with water from the causeway plant.