A scene from St. Petersburg's sewage crisis: A plan to release sewage into Boca Ciega Bay backfires

Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people Sept. 13 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city’s overwhelmed sewer system.
Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people Sept. 13 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city’s overwhelmed sewer system.
Published Oct. 12, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — At the height of a hurricane-induced overflow of waste from the city's Northwest sewer plant last month, wastewater officials scrambled to try to stop partially treated sewage from flowing into nearby streets and homes.

So they told plant operator Kyle Soriano to open a valve that would allow the overflowing plant to send sewage through an old pipe — locked and chained for years — into Boca Ciega Bay.

Soriano, 46, said he refused.

There would be an even greater environmental and public health risk, he told the Tampa Bay Times, if the sewage reached the tidal waters of the bay. Then it would spread more quickly and threaten more people.

But his bosses told him it was better than letting the sewage flow into nearby neighborhoods.

Water Resources director Steve Leavitt wrote a memo that Sept. 3 day, authorizing the pipe to be used. Leavitt and other officials pried the balky valve open.

But the move backfired: Instead of going into Boca Ciega Bay, city officials said, the sewage went back into the neighborhood, bursting through manhole covers near the plant on 26th Avenue N.

This week, Soriano described that chaotic scene from St. Petersburg's sewage crisis after being contacted by the Times. Now the events of Sept. 3 are part of the state's investigation into the city's handling of nearly 200 million gallons of spills and dumps since August 2015.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said part of its investigation will now focus on whether St. Petersburg officials properly notified the state about that attempt to discharge sewage directly into Boca Ciega Bay.

The city posted signs in neighborhoods affected by the Northwest plant spill, but didn't otherwise notify the public or City Council until the following week.

Mayor Rick Kriseman was not told about the Sept. 3 plan until Tuesday, said spokesman Ben Kirby, but the mayor is now glad that officials tried creative solutions to solve the overflow at the plant.

The city did not tell the state that it attempted a planned sewage dump. In the past, when the city has dumped sewage into Tampa Bay from its shuttered Albert Whitted plant, it has notified the state.

The city verbally notified the state on Sept. 1 when it started spilling sewage out of the Northwest storage tanks, but never told the state of its plans to initiate a controlled discharge two days later.

"Failure to report an unauthorized discharge would be a violation of DEP's rules and permits. This is part of our ongoing investigation," DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said in an email to the Times, referring to the inquiry ordered by Gov. Rick Scott.

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The city admitted it did not tell the DEP about the plan to pump sewage into Boca Ciega Bay, but officials said they didn't have to do so.

After the Times asked the city about the Sept. 3 incident on Tuesday, the city said public works administrator Claude Tankersley called DEP regional director Mary Yeargan.

Kirby said Tankersley was told by the DEP official that the city didn't need to notify the state because the pipe didn't work. When told of the city's explanation, DEP issued this response:

"As part of our ongoing investigation, DEP is reviewing information related to any and all unauthorized discharges to determine if there were violations to DEP's rules and permits."

Soriano said he was so troubled by the Sept. 3 plan that he asked his superiors to put their request in writing. Leavitt did so in a memo addressed to Soriano and his supervisor, the chief plant operator.

"You are authorized to cut the chain and open the valve to the old plant discharge pipe. The purpose of this is to test the operability of the discharge pipe. The test will determine if the pipe could be used in an emergency to discharge partially treated effluent," wrote Leavitt, who then signed and initialed the document.

But Soriano said he still refused to cut the chain to the long-unused pipe and open the valve. He said Leavitt and other officials did it.

For 25 minutes, Soriano says, sewage flowed toward Boca Ciega Bay, but the pipe didn't function properly and manhole covers were blown along 26th Avenue N.

Charlie Wise, the city's water reclamation manager, said it's unclear how much sewage was released into the pipe before Leavitt called off the plan.

Wise said the valve was only open for about five minutes. He acknowledged that the shift operator's log — maintained by Soriano — listed the valve open between 3:45 p.m. and 4:10 p.m.

"I knew that's the valve we're not supposed to touch," Soriano said. "I told them I really felt uncomfortable doing it."

Wise said it was Leavitt's idea to open the Northwest pipe, to see if sewage could be pumped into Boca Ciega Bay instead of the neighborhoods. Leavitt, who could not be reached for comment, was placed on unpaid leave last month as the city reviewed its sewage woes.

Soriano said he asked for written proof of the order to open the Northwest pipe to make sure there was a record of what the city attempted.

"I wanted something I could attach to my log," Soriano said, adding he wanted to show that "someone with authority ordered that valve to be opened."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.