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St. Petersburg pumped 6.6 million more gallons of dirty water into the Floridan Aquifer over the weekend

The water exceeded state pollution limits for injection. It’s the seventh infraction the city has racked up since the start of 2018.
An injection well at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility in St. Petersburg. The plant pumped 6.6 million gallons of too-dirty water into the aquifer on Saturday. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
An injection well at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility in St. Petersburg. The plant pumped 6.6 million gallons of too-dirty water into the aquifer on Saturday. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 22, 2019
Updated Aug. 22, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — After rain pummeled the Tampa Bay area last week, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Sunday tweeted a laudatory note about the way the city’s sewage system handled the inundation.

“Really proud of our Public Works & Water Resources for guiding our improved wastewater system through the past few weeks," the mayor tweeted, "& esp yesterday.”

Yet a day earlier, the sewage system had pumped 6.6 million more gallons of illegal dirty water into the Floridan aquifer through an injection well.

Saturday’s water surpassed a pollution limit set by the Department of Environmental Protection for water pumped into the aquifer, a violation of the city’s injection permit. It was the seventh instance since January 1, 2018 the city injected water that exceeded the limit. With Saturday’s numbers factored in, the city has sent more than 27 million gallons of non-compliant water down the hatch since then, according to state environmental officials.

RELATED STORY: Down the hatch: St. Petersburg has sent more than 21 million gallons of improperly treated sewage into the aquifer since 2018

St. Petersburg is the only city in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to have violated state law by putting too-dirty water down its wells during that period, state officials confirmed.

City spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor’s tweet did not mislead the public about the performance of the sewage system: “Not at all.”

“He’s proud of how our system operated," Kirby wrote of the mayor, via email. "Our whole community should be.”

It’s the latest development in the city’s sewage saga, which peaked from 2015 to 2017 when its aging system released a billion gallons of sewage into the aquifer and local waterways, prompting city leaders to sign a consent order with the state pledging $326 million in sewer improvements.

RELATED STORY: Robots will soon invade St. Petersburg’s sewer pipes. Do not fear them.

According to a city document, Saturday’s issue was the result of “extreme wet weather flows” that caused the wastewater at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility to become more dirty. Workers tried to divert the dirty water to tanks, but construction at the facility limited its capacity, so “off-spec” water was forced into the ground.

Samples of the dirty water showed it had, on average, 17 milligrams per liter of total suspended solids, a measure of pollution. The highest sample was 50 mg/l. The state limit is 5 mg/l.

Kirby said during a five-day period last week, the city’s wastewater system handled 397 million gallons, more than double the average. All but the non-compliant 6.6 million gallons were within allowable pollution limits, he said.

Injection wells deliver wastewater deep into the aquifer, below drinking water levels. State officials have said pumping “off-spec” wastewater into the aquifer is just as much of an environmental hazard as spilling it above ground. Studies have found evidence of “upward migration” of polluted reclaimed water through the Swiss cheese-like geology of the aquifer, although not into the drinking water.