ST. PETERSBURG — When the city pumped more than 16 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays this month, it thrust a coveted piece of waterfront property back into the public eye.
Nestled next to Albert Whitted Airport is the city's oldest sewage treatment plant, closed since April. The decision to shutter the plant, made several years ago, was triggered by a state regulatory change that made the plant obsolete.
Now, the plant is a crucial backstop for an overstressed sewer system. But the decision to partially reopen it has raised questions about how and when to redevelop the property, including a study to assess the site's suitability as a fish farm.
A big part of the decision to close the Albert Whitted treatment plant was financial: a 2010 study found that shutting it down would save money — $32 million over 20 years.
City officials promised council members that the sewage treated at Albert Whitted could be diverted to the city's Southwest wastewater plant without any trouble.
But that proved false when nearly 15 inches of rain fell on the city between mid July and early August, drowning aging sewer pipes in water.
Wastewater officials scrambled to reopen Albert Whitted to prevent the release of untreated sewage in the streets or another massive discharge into Clam Bayou, which had already absorbed 15.4 million gallons of raw sewage. Days later, another 1.1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater spilled into Tampa Bay.
Keeping the Albert Whitted plant open wouldn't have prevented the emergency dumpings, but it might have reduced their size, city officials have said.
"I told you so" came fast and furious last week at City Council. Council members Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton reminded staff that they had opposed closing Albert Whitted because they feared exactly what happened — stormwater infiltrating leaky sewage pipes that overwhelmed the system.
The Southwest plant is being expanded to handle a higher flow volume, but the project won't be complete until next summer.
"In hindsight, we shouldn't have shut down Albert Whitted before the expansion was done," council member Karl Nurse said Thursday.
After the dumpings, Mayor Rick Kriseman ordered the Albert Whitted plant to stay open as an emergency backup. Last week, city staff confirmed that it wouldn't be demolished until after a 15-million-gallon storage tank at Southwest is completed.
That decision might stall plans floated recently by the city's top economic development official, Alan DeLisle, to lure a fish farm to the former plant. The city is paying the bulk of a $80,000 feasibility study to see if fish, likely tilapia or salmon, can be farmed on the site.
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A Texas company interested in the prospect has a European patent that promises an environmentally safe, odor-free fish farm, DeLisle said.
"We're not jumping into the project," DeLisle said. "Just getting all the facts."
The eight-acre site shouldn't be used for aquaculture, said Jack Tunstill, a longtime Albert Whitted Airport advocate and member of the airport's advisory committee. Instead, he favors aeronautical activities like extra hangar space or even a university-affiliated aviation program along the lines of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
DeLisle, hired late last year, is the latest in a long line of city economic development officials who want to build something on airport land that has nothing to do with aviation, Tunstill said.
Tunstill said it's not viable to build a fish farm on land that had been a wastewater plant.
"These tanks have been holding feces for decades," he said. "I know you can clean them up, but still."
DeLisle said the feasibility study should conclude how much space is needed for a fish farm, which could leave room for more hangar space at the airport.
As for a Gulf Coast version of Embry-Riddle? DeLisle said there's no substantive offer to create an aviation program, so it's not being considered.
The Federal Aviation Administration has the final say on whatever ends up on the site, Tunstill said.
Meanwhile, with more rain expected this week, Albert Whitted's immediate future will be to help store 4.4 million gallons of excess sewage and stormwater.
And questions still linger about why the plant was taken off line, removing millions of gallons of capacity from the city's 56-million-gallon wastewater system. During the worst of the rains, the daily flow reached 80 million gallons.
A 2010 report detailed cost savings, said council member Jim Kennedy, but didn't examine potential risks of shutting down the plant.
"I'm wondering whose job that was," Kennedy said.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.