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State to begin investigation of St. Petersburg sewage dump

St. Petersburg had spills of untreated sewage from popped manhole covers in the Perry Bayview neighborhood. A warning sign is posted at a playground at 27th Avenue S and 38th Street.
St. Petersburg had spills of untreated sewage from popped manhole covers in the Perry Bayview neighborhood. A warning sign is posted at a playground at 27th Avenue S and 38th Street.
Published Jun. 14, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — State and city officials will meet Friday afternoon to determine if the city violated its wastewater permit when heavy rains forced St. Petersburg to pump nearly 10 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay.

The discharge began Wednesday and ended Thursday evening. The city said the storm filled leaky pipes with water, doubling the normal amount of flow into the city's sewer plants. The city's director of water resources told the City Council last week that the 2011 decision to close one of the city's four sewer plants last year exacerbated the problem.

A letter dated Thursday and sent to city Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley by state Department of Environmental Protection Southwest District Director Mary Yeargan said the state "has observed a pattern between rainfall events and discharges/bypasses."

The DEP also wants to "discuss measures which you have, or need to have, in place to eliminate the discharges/bypasses that have occurred," Yeargan wrote.

Tankersley said he wasn't surprised and called it a "standard letter" that is an expected first step in the process any time a city discharges sewage without fully treating it.

A similar meeting doesn't appear to have occurred after weeks of rain last summer caused 31.5 million gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage to be spilled or dumped. Nor was a letter sent, said Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby.

The DEP didn't send the letter because so many dumps and spills happened in cities across Tampa Bay last year, Kirby said state officials told the city.

A DEP spokesman said the agency has no blanket policy to scrutinize dumps or spills.

"The department reviews each bypass on a case-by-case basis to determine if further information is needed," spokeswoman Jessica Boyd said.

The city's permit allows dumps if it was "unavoidable to prevent loss of life, personal injury or severe property damage" and no feasible alternatives exist.

City officials have said the dumping was necessary to avoid sewage in the streets, and possibly backing up into people's homes. The city didn't issue an alert to encourage residents not to flush their toilets because Tankersley said he didn't want to inconvenience residents.

If the city had issued such an alert, as St. Pete Beach did, it might have reduced the overflow by about 10 percent, Tankersley said.

Rep. Kathleen Peters, a South Pasadena Republican who called for an investigation last week, said Monday that said she wants the state to make sure that the city has adequately maintained its wastewater system.

"I have deep concerns about 11 inches of rain causing these types of problems," Peters said. "It's a public safety issue."

Peters praised the city's communication to officials in beach towns in her district, an effort she said was vastly improved over last year's spills and dumps.

In a re-election race with Democrat Jennifer Webb, Peters said her request for state review had nothing to do with politics. Mayor Rick Kriseman is a Democrat.

"I'm not one of those politicians,'' Peters said. "I don't play on sound bites. That's not how I work."

Aside from the dumping into the bay, which tested about 60 times above safe limits, the city had smaller spills of untreated sewage from popped manhole covers in the Perry Bayview neighborhood.

Last week, the mayor reversed course on his previous resistance to spending much of the city's $6.5 million BP settlement money on sewer repairs. In October, Kriseman earmarked $1 million of the BP cash on improving the wastewater system. But he proposed spending most of the money on projects like a bike share, ferry service to Tampa, tree plantings, an arts endowment and climate-change studies.

Kriseman has supported issuing bonds to make more expensive repairs costing tens of millions of dollars in the coming years. He has also backed a $3.4 million study of the system, which the council will consider on Thursday.

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