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Tampa Bay's sewage mess: 29 million gallons spilled into the bay and rising

What appears to be partially treated sewage discharges into the waters of Tampa Bay on Tuesday. As of midmorning Monday, the city said 20 million gallons had been released from its shuttered Albert Whitted treatment plant.
Published Sep. 7, 2016

Hurricane Hermine vacated Florida four days ago, but she left an unpleasant fragrance in her wake.

Since the Category 1 storm brushed by Tampa Bay last week, tens of millions of gallons of sewage — much of it partially-treated, plenty of it raw — have been unleashed into the waters of Tampa and Boca Ciega bay and into watersheds all over Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

The total so far: 29 million gallons and rising. The city of St. Petersburg continued to spew sewage into the bay on Tuesday while many local governments have yet to report how much they've spilled.

Hermine caused problems for sewage systems on both sides of the bay:

Tampa spilled 938,000 gallons into Tampa Bay after a power outage at the height of the storm briefly knocked out the city's wastewater treatment facility.

Clearwater lost a sewer plant after intake pumps were overwhelmed by heavy rains. The amount of that spill is still being calculated.

Pinellas County discharged 7.3 million gallons of mostly-treated sewage into Joe's Creek.

But those volumes pale into comparison to what St. Petersburg has dumped into Tampa Bay in a controlled discharge from its shuttered Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant, which is now used for emergency storage.

As of midmorning on Monday, the city reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection that 20 million gallons had been released. The notification to the state gave no other details.

On Tuesday, unlike other cities around Tampa Bay, Mayor Rick Kriseman and his office weren't releasing any details about the discharge or the numbers reported to the state.

The mayor's spokesman Ben Kirby confirmed that as of Tuesday — a day after the city reported the 20 million gallons to the state — the discharge into the bay continued.

Additional rains over the weekend didn't help matters, Kirby said.

The city's report doesn't specify if all of those 20 million gallons had been discharged into Tampa Bay from the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant. But the fact that city says the sewage had been partially treated indicates that most, if not all, of those reported gallons ended up in the bay.

St. Petersburg also suffered some clogged sewer lines and overflowing manholes, which release raw sewage. The amount spilled from those sources hadn't been calculated last week, but after the city dumped nearly 10 million gallons of sewage into the bay in June, about 200,000 gallons of untreated sewage escaped from manholes.

The city doesn't plan to release any details until the lingering effects of Hurricane Hermine end, Kirby said. He declined to say when the mayor will declare the weather event over.

Designed to handle 56 million gallons per day, all three St. Petersburg sewer plants were at capacity late last week. Albert Whitted, on the city's waterfront, is used only to store overflow capacity, not treat sewage.

The city's aging pipes allow water into the sanitary sewer system when the ground is saturated with rain water. And city officials have acknowledged that shuttering Albert Whitted in 2015, which removed 12.5 million gallons of capacity from the system, has exacerbated the problem.

Kriseman and the City Council have pledged about $58 million in sewer improvements over the next several fiscal years. Some work has already been done, but the city says it has struggled to find contractors to do the work.

Since August 2015, when weeks of heavy rains led to more than 30 million gallons of spills and discharges, the city has discharged at least another 30 million gallons into Tampa Bay.

St. Petersburg isn't alone. A brief power outage led to nearly 1 million gallons being spilled into Tampa Bay by the city of Tampa on Friday morning at the height of Hermine. A Clearwater sewer plant was temporarily out of service during the storm, and many other cities and counties in the bay area reported violations to the state, including Pinellas' 7.3 million gallon dump.

Many of those spills and dumps haven't been calculated yet, but it's safe to say tens of millions of gallons of sewage — from gushing manholes and clogged pipes to controlled dumps — ended up where it shouldn't have.

Since Friday, Clearwater, New Port Richey, Pinellas County, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and Pasco County also reported spills, according to DEP.

So far, only Tampa has reported bacteria testing to the state. Normally, cities and counties have five days after a storm to provide details about spills or dumps, but after major events like a hurricane, the agency often relaxes that deadline.

"As long as we know that the permit holder is working to get us the information," said DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.

Tampa showed elevated fecal coliform levels in the Hillsborough River, especially at W Columbus Drive, W Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and North Boulevard. On Friday, levels at those locations ranged from six to 20 times over the limit. By Sunday, however, those same locations showed levels only slightly above normal.

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

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