ST. PETERSBURG — At a sparsely attended presentation Wednesday night at a city recreation center, a sewer consultant offered a possible strategy for St. Petersburg to grapple with the upcoming rainy season:
If heavy rains once again overwhelm the aging sewer system, the consultant said, this time the city could flush the sewage far underground instead of releasing it into Tampa Bay.
The decision to release tens of millions of gallons of waste into the bay during last year's sewage crisis still haunts City Hall.
But when the rainy season starts in June, the city could have up to four injection wells ready to pump treated wastewater underground, freeing up scarce storage space during storms. The wells are on track to be approved by the state and at least one should be online this summer.
Mark McNeal of ASRus, a Tampa consulting firm overseeing the city's well project, said that if another storm like Hurricane Hermine hits, he believes flushing sewage about 1,100 feet down into the Floridan Aquifer is preferable to releasing it into either Tampa Bay or Boca Ciega Bay.
"We're going to protect the bay at all costs," McNeal said during a public meeting at Lake Vista Recreation Center. "Putting it out in the bay or down the wells? My recommendation is to put it down the wells."
However, in the state's view, flushing sewage down a well is just as much a violation of environmental rules as releasing it into Tampa Bay.
McNeal's remarks do not represent an official city position, said Public Works spokesman Bill Logan. He said the city intends to follow state rules on disposing of sewage.
Since August 2015, the city has dumped or spilled about 200 million gallons of sewage into local waterways, spurring state and federal investigations. The city and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are negotiating a consent order that mandates how the city will fix its sewage issues.
McNeal indicated at the meeting that developing some sort of protocol allowing sewage to be flushed down the wells in an emergency is being discussed between the city and the DEP. But on Thursday, both city and state officials said they have not talked about such a scenario.
The injection wells are part of Mayor Rick Kriseman's $304 million plan to tackle the problem. The mayor is also running for re-election this year.
The part of the aquifer that the sewage would be flushed down is a brackish layer hundreds of feet below where drinking water is found. The deep underground "polishes" the sewage, McNeal said, killing off fecal coliform and other harmful bacteria.
Within days, he said, it's virtually impossible to find traces of the waste.
The city has dumped sewage into injection wells without notifying the public or elected officials in the recent past.
In September 2013, after a week of heavy rain, the city flushed 10.5 million gallons of partly treated sewage down the wells at its Southwest plant. Bill Foster, who was mayor at the time, told the Tampa Bay Times in October that he couldn't remember ever being told about the incident (which was reported to the DEP). Council members also had no memory of the dump. Former Public Works administrator Mike Connors declined to comment about the incident.
Unlike releasing it into the bay, flushing sewage down wells avoids odors and more obvious public health and environmental hazards. But in 2005, the state changed its rules about the practice at the direction of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.
An EPA spokeswoman directed the Tampa Bay Times to a 2005 news release that said the change was made because "evidence has accumulated that some of the wastewater has been migrating into underground sources of drinking water." City officials, though, have said that no contamination of St. Petersburg's drinking water has ever been detected.
City Council member Steve Kornell said the wells are only a partial solution. Instead, the city needs to focus on expanding capacity at the plant to avoid having to use the underground wells.
Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley said the city is on track to increase capacity at the Southwest plant with more filters and other improvements. That should increase the plant's capacity from its current 40 million gallons per day to 70 million gallons by summer if everything proceeds as planned.
Work could start on the wells, which are located on the Southwest plant's property near Eckerd College and at the nearby 31st Street Sports Complex, by late February. At least one well is expected to be ready by July.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.