Half a million gallons of raw sewage — enough to fill the majority of an Olympic-sized swimming pool — spilled from a Clearwater wastewater treatment plant Tuesday night after a glitch shut down the facility’s water pumps.
A communication panel that controls pumps at the Marshall Street plant “malfunctioned” and caused an estimated 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater to dump from a manhole just outside of the treatment plant, according to Richard Gardner, director of public utilities for the city of Clearwater.
Some of that sewage spilled onto the ground, and the rest emptied into a sewer that leads directly to Stevenson Creek, Gardner said. It’s still unclear just how much raw sewage emptied into the waterway.
Stevenson Creek weaves more than 3 miles through a populated area surrounded by homes and parks. The creek empties into Clearwater Harbor and is part of the St. Joseph Sound watershed, according to the Pinellas County Water Atlas.
“It’s a spill we’re taking seriously and we’re monitoring Stevenson Creek to see if it had any effect,” Gardner said in an interview. That includes taking water quality samples upstream and downstream of the spill to measure bacteria levels. Those test results are still pending, Gardner said.
The treatment plant pumps about 6 million gallons per day, meaning the spill accounts for roughly 8% of the daily amount of total sewage treated.
“It’s a drop in the bucket to the amount we treat every day, but we’re still taking it seriously to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Gardner said.
A cleanup crew was only able to capture about 5,500 gallons of the sewage, according to a pollution notice the facility submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They used a pump truck with a vacuum attached to suck up sewage that emptied on the ground.
Cleaners also covered the sludge in lime, which is known to halt the growth of pathogens and help with the smell. Signs warning of the spill were placed near the creek, according to the pollution notice.
In a statement to the Times, U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna said she was “dismayed to learn of the massive sewage spill in my district from a Clearwater waste treatment plant.”
“This is obviously extremely concerning for all residents in Pinellas County and my office will be working with local officials to ensure that more information becomes public and clean-up efforts are aided quickly and efficiently,” she said.
The spill lasted about two hours Tuesday night, beginning just after 6 p.m. and ending around 8 p.m., according to the notice.
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The communication equipment that glitched is designed to tell pumps when to speed up or slow down based on the amount of raw sewage moving through the plant, Gardner said. The panel malfunctioned two times over the course of the incident.
“We thought we had it back in service, then during a second glitch we realized we needed a second repair,” Gardner said.
The manhole where the sewage spilled sits on the corner of Russell Street and Holt Avenue, according to the report. It’s nestled between Phillip Jones Park to the north and Clearwater Intermediate School to the south. State environmental regulators consider Stevenson Creek to be an “impaired” waterbody, meaning it doesn’t meet water quality standards.
The Clearwater treatment plant has seen spills in the past: In 2016, for instance, floodwater from Category 1 Hurricane Hermine inundated the Marshall Street plant and caused a mechanical failure. A resulting 29 million gallons of a mixture of rainwater and sewage emptied into Clearwater Harbor, and another 3 million gallons poured into Old Tampa Bay.
Several wastewater spills have impacted waterways across the Tampa Bay region in recent months.
In January, an estimated 630,000 gallons of raw sewage emptied into the Hillsborough River after Tampa Electric cut the power to an apartment’s wastewater station. One month later, enough sewage to fill nearly 200 bathtubs emptied into John’s Pass after a shovel was left in a manhole. And last month, 45,000 gallons of reclaimed water dumped into Boca Ciega Bay after a Duke Energy contractor hit a pipe during construction.