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St. Petersburg official: City may never know how many millions of gallons of sewage was dumped

Public works chief Claude Tankersley says a meter was stuck.
Published Sep. 9, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city has now spent eight straight days dumping millions of gallons of partially treated sewage from its overburdened sewer system into the waters of Tampa Bay.

While that dumping continued Thursday, St. Petersburg's top public works official made this admission to the City Council: They will never know exactly how much partially treated sewage has been released into the bay.

Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said a stuck flow meter on discharge pipes has made it impossible to determine how many millions of gallons have befouled the bay since Aug. 31. The city told the state that as of Monday morning, more than 20 million gallons had been released.

Thus, Tankersley told the Tampa Bay Times, the city may never know how much was dumped as a result of Hurricane Hermine.

Officials also could not say when the discharges will stop.

City Council chairwoman Amy Foster said the nonstop sewage dumping is starting to maker her feel like she's stuck in the movie Groundhog Day alongside Bill Murray.

"It's unacceptable to dump into the bay," she said. "It's absolutely unacceptable to dump eight straight days."

While other municipalities around Tampa Bay saw their sewage plants overwhelmed by the Category 1 hurricane, St. Petersburg has been alleviating its overwhelmed sewage system via a controlled discharge made through a single pipe from the Albert Whitted treatment plant that releases the sewage about a quarter mile out into Tampa Bay.

Still, Tankersley said, the malfunctioning meter has made it impossible to determine the amount of the discharge flows. Wastewater officials don't know why the meter malfunctioned, he said, and they haven't been able to fix it yet.

The city will provide the state with an estimate, but Tankersley didn't say when that would happen. Earlier this week, the city notified the state's Department of Environmental Protection that more than 20 million gallons of wastewater had been dumped and the amount was increasing. When asked if the eventual estimate would exceed 20 million gallons, Tankersley did not respond.

Council members on Thursday vented their frustration at the third time the city has dumped sewage into the bay since August 2015. At least 60 million gallons have been spilled or dumped since last year.

Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city has budgeted more than $200 million over the next five years to fix leaky pipes and increase capacity. Officials said the system should be much improved within two years.

He also said that previous mayors had neglected the system and that dumps are nothing new. He cited a dump of 69 million gallons in 1999.

The council also took a big step to alleviate another Hermine-fueled problem: flooding. The council passed a large increase in stormwater fees. The average customer will see their stormwater fees rise from $6.84 to $9.00 per month — a $2.16 increase in an average monthly bill.

Kriseman proposed the increase just a few days before the meeting to help alleviate flooding, a problem that he said is just getting worse. The increase will give the city about $2.6 million a year to improve drainage.

Final approval on the stormwater fees and the overall utility rate is set for Sept. 22.

Council member Karl Nurse praised the mayor for having the courage to raise stormwater fees so drastically.

Tankersley said stormwater problems worsen sewage woes as saturated soil puts more pressure on sewer lines and leads to more leaks.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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