ST. PETERSBURG — Days after Subtropical Storm Alberto dumped heavy rain on this city in May 2018, officials gave themselves a glowing report card on progress made repairing its leaky sewage system.
“The city’s infrastructure handled the inundation from the storm’s rainfall completely and without incident,” read a May 29 posting on the city’s website.
But the city didn’t tell the public that a few weeks earlier, it had pumped nearly 19 million gallons of wastewater into the Floridan aquifer that didn’t meet state or federal standards.
Since the beginning of 2018, the city has violated its wastewater permit at least six times by pumping more than 21 million gallons of wastewater downs its wells, state records show. A probable seventh violation occurred this past weekend. Its size is still unknown.
When asked to explain the gulf between the city’s news release and the documented violations of state environmental law in three separate illegal pumpings in May 2018, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesman said the city hasn’t been trying to hide anything.
Ben Kirby said the city’s public notification protocol wasn’t in place before January. He said the laudatory press release was meant to congratulate Water Resources department employees for their hard work.
Was it an attempt to mislead the public?
“No,” Kirby wrote in an email.
St. Petersburg’s sewage problems have been well documented and widely publicized since the city dumped, pumped and spilled nearly a billion gallons of sewage into the aquifer and local waterways between 2015 and 2017, prompting the city to sign a consent order with the state pledging $326 million in sewer improvements.
But the city hasn’t always been transparent about the amount of partially treated wastewater it pumps below ground.
Shortly before Kriseman’s 2017 re-election, the Times reported the city violated state law by sending 16.5 million gallons down the wells after Hurricane Irma hit the city nearly two months earlier. For weeks, the mayor had campaigned around the city claiming there hadn’t been any significant problems with the sewage system.
And Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials say St. Petersburg is the only wastewater permit holder in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to violate state law by putting less than reclaimed water quality effluent down its wells between Jan. 1, 2018 and Monday, the period covered by a Times public records request for all sewage systems in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The city had higher than allowed amounts of total suspended solids, a measure of pollution, in the wastewater it sent down its wells. But state officials said elevated amounts of fecal coliform, a dangerous bacteria, were not present. They also said the state didn’t take corrective action because St. Pete’s pumping didn’t meet the criteria for “significant non-compliance," meaning that the city’s six documented violations didn’t occur often enough or were sufficiently serious within six consecutive months.
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St. Petersburg Water Resources Director John Palenchar said the city did alert the public to more recent violations on its website, but also said the city’s position was to balance public awareness against the level of risk to human health. The city pumped the illegal wastewater below the drinking water aquifer, which makes it less dangerous than spills on city streets or into Tampa Bay, city and state officials have said.
“The level of notification should be, I guess, commensurate with the likelihood of any harm to human health or environmental impact,” Palenchar said.
In fact, city officials considered asking the state to make it legal to pump what is now considered illegal wastewater into the aquifer in 2018. That was the standard practice before 2005.
The state dismissed the idea, saying pumping “off-spec” wastewater into the aquifer was just as much of an environmental hazard as spilling it above ground. The Swiss-cheese-like geology of the aquifer means that pollution can be at risk of spreading more widely. Studies found evidence of “upward migration” of polluted reclaimed water, although not into the drinking water, which prompted the federal and state rule changes.
Kirby said that St. Petersburg relies much more on injection wells than other cities and counties in Tampa Bay. And the state’s fifth-largest city isn’t the only one that experienced problems with the recent rains. Cities and counties on both sides of the bay reported overflows, including Tampa, which recorded a 30,000-gallon spill over the weekend.
St. Petersburg had another violation of its permit on Saturday at the city’s Southwest plant near Eckerd College, with elevated levels of suspended solids for an hour or two after heavy rain. The city hasn’t finished calculating how many gallons were involved, Palenchar said.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice said initially she wasn’t aware of the scope of the injection well violations. Later, Rice said she just forgot about the communications from staff at the time of the below-standard wastewater being flushed into the aquifer.
Nevertheless, she said, the public should be kept better informed.
“Even if not a direct harm to humans, people should know how we are coming along with fixing our infrastructure even if sometimes it is less than positive news,” she texted Tuesday afternoon.