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St. Petersburg's 'black cloud' of sewage woes grows by 58 million gallons

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman has referred to the city's massive sewage dump after Hurricane Hermine as a "black cloud" that overshadows the Sunshine City.

But that cloud keeps growing darker — and bigger.

The city on Wednesday reported to the state that an additional 58 million gallons of partly treated sewage was released last week from its Northwest treatment plant at 7500 26th Ave. N.

The latest total estimate of St. Petersburg's spilled sewage now stands at 128 million gallons — and that's not counting the unknown amount of waste that gushed from more than 40 manholes onto city streets.

Most of that waste has been dumped into Tampa Bay. But the latest reported spill took place in west St. Petersburg, and much of it emptied out of stormwater drains into Boca Ciega Bay.

St. Petersburg's latest spill brings the total estimate of waste local utilities released across the bay area to 230 million gallons — an amount that has continued to climb since Hermine's drenching rains. And the city's estimates could continue to rise.

Mayor Rick Kriseman took to YouTube on Wednesday, appearing in a four-minute online video to outline the city's plans to address the crisis. But he cautioned residents that any fix is at least two years away.

Kriseman said a changing climate with heavier rains has created a "perfect storm" that has stressed an aging system. That system was further compromised last year with the closing of one of the city's four sewer plants. The 2011 vote to close the plant was taken more than two years before Kriseman took office.

The mayor, however, did not mention the 58 million gallon spill in his video.

Much of the sewage released from the Northwest plan flowed into Jungle Lake in Walter Fuller Park. Initial water testing by the city after the overflow began in the early morning hours of Sept. 1 showed extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

Those tests were released Tuesday. The spill ceased on Sept. 7.

Eventually, the wastewater ended up in Boca Ciega Bay, which also recorded high initial levels of bacteria.

Azalea neighborhood residents, who live nearby the plant, said sewage flowed over 22nd Avenue N into their yards. The sewer plant is located next to Azalea Middle School.

The city publicly told residents not to worry — a week after the overflow stopped. Officials said the wastewater was nearly as clean as reclaimed water —fully treated sewage that is sprinkled on lawns across the city.

City officials did not respond to requests for a more detailed explanation about the composition of that sewage spill.

On YouTube, the mayor said St. Petersburg is facing a crisis.

"We are in the middle of a perfect storm," Kriseman said. He mentioned the 2011 decision to close the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant, which removed 12.5 million gallons of capacity from the sewer system — nearly 20 percent.

He lamented the three heavy rain events since last August, which saturated the ground, forcing water into aging, leaky pipes which created record-high sewage flows that overwhelmed the city's three remaining sewer plants.

"Climate change has arrived and this is what it looks like," Kriseman said.

The city has budgeted $38 million in a budget about to be approved by the City Council and plans to spend $100 million over the next five years to address spills and dumps that now total at least 160 million gallons since last August.

"The bill has come due and we are paying it," Kriseman said, adding that the city will also seek state and federal help to fix the sewers.

Meanwhile, the state is readying a consent order to ensure that the city solve its sewage problem. Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials said this week that the order will be issued shortly. And a powerful legislator, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called a special meeting of the Pinellas County legislative delegation on Sept. 20 to discuss the issue.

City Council member Karl Nurse said he plans to ask his colleagues later this month to endorse a plan to spend up to $100 million to fix the sewers and stormwater drains. The money would come from Penny for Pinellas dollars if a new round of that tax passes next year. Funds would become available in 2020.

The scale of the sewage crisis is much worse than anyone thought, Nurse said, and the public outcry is becoming deafening.

"People are pretty angry," he said. "Whatever project you want to talk about doing, they want to talk about sewers."

Many elected officials in the city and county tout their environmental passions, Nurse said, but have been in denial about the scale of the problem.

"Some more than others," he said, without naming any individuals. "But what could be more of an environmental issue than dumping poop in the bay?"

Wednesday evening, Kriseman met with sewage protesters outside a Pier meeting at the J.W Cate Recreation Center, a few miles away from the Northwest plant spill.

It was the second day protesters showed up at a Pier meeting. They demanded a town hall be held to discuss the problem and said they're going to keep protesting.

The mayor said he would consider whether the city needs an independent study of the sewage crisis. And he told them:

"This is driving me crazy, too."

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.