ST. PETERSBURG — The sewage spilled for days from a burst pipe on 62nd Avenue N, carrying harmful bacteria that could reach Joe's Creek and Boca Ciega Bay, imperiling swimmers and a bevy of wildlife.
About 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, workers were finally able to contain the rupture by installing a thick PVC pipe to bypass the broken 20-inch iron pipe that has spewed sewage since Saturday night, said Pinellas emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino.
It's unclear how much of that sewage made its way to Joe's Creek. County authorities used vacuum trucks to gather water from the spill. In the first 24 hours after the break, Iovino said, the trucks had sucked up about a half-million gallons of sewage.
Early Tuesday morning, county water workers teamed with state environmental officials to test water in Joe's Creek, Cross Bayou and northern Boca Ciega Bay, according to Iovino. The results of those tests were pending early Tuesday afternoon.
Until that testing is complete, environmental experts said it is difficult to gauge just how harmful the spill will be. But they cautioned that a large amount of sewage could generate algae blooms and dangerous bacteria.
Liquid sewage, like manure on land, is loaded with nutrients, said Ernst B. Peebles, a biological oceanography professor at the University of South Florida. Those nutrients could give birth to algae blooms that would place a "heavy demand on the oxygen supply in the water."
Beyond the fish that depend on this oxygen, Peter Clark, president of Tampa Bay Watch, said algae blooms would also hurt the recovery of sea grass in parts of Boca Ciega Bay.
If the spilled sewage manages to drift from Joe's Creek through Cross Bayou and into the bay, it will reach a section of shallow water thick with oyster beds, Clark said.
Wading birds such as ibises and herons are found throughout the area. Michael Cole, of Tampa Fishing Outfitters, said few boats can ride into such shallow water, but there are redfish, snook, trout, and tarpon in northern Boca Ciega Bay. He said the tidal pools and shallows also are a popular kayaking spot.
Bacteria from the sewage would also pose a threat to swimmers and could cause intestinal issues or eye irritation, according to Clark. The county said the spill does not affect drinking water.
"It could make you very sick," Clark said.
Officials say people should refrain from recreational activities in Joe's Creek, Cross Bayou, Long Bayou, and northern Boca Ciega Bay until further notice.
Iovino said he did not know early Tuesday if Pinellas would face environmental fines.
Any environmental cleanup will depend on how much sewage reached the creek or bay. Because the water is shallow, Peebles said, the wind and tide will mix it quickly, helping keep oxygen levels up if algae blooms result.
Still, he said, the spill came at a bad time because of the warm weather.
"The warmer it is, the worse these events are on the ecology just because warm water doesn't hold as much oxygen as cold water," he said.
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.