ST. PETERSBURG — Recovering from the sewage crisis has taken the city years and cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, officials say, it’s time for property owners to do their part.
The City Council is considering an ordinance that would force property owners to repair or replace broken sewer lines — the ones that connect homes or businesses to the street — if the city discovers a problem with them. Those pipes are private property.
The ordinance doesn’t yet have a lot of teeth, and though replacing the pipes could cost a homeowner thousands, city officials say it won’t force many property owners to incur major costs, at least any time soon. They hope to eventually establish a rebate program to encourage property owners to willingly inspect and repair their sewer lines.
“This provides an opportunity for us to team up with the private property owners to solve this problem together,” said St. Petersburg Water Resources Director John Palenchar.
But, he said, it stops short of requiring inspections across the board.
“So rather than put an unfunded mandate on homeowners, we’re trying to work on a funding mechanism,” he said.
Passing an ordinance that addresses private sewer laterals — the lines are called laterals because they run sideways from the street to structures — by June 2020 is a requirement of the consent order the city signed with the state after the 2015-16 sewage crisis. The city released up to a billion gallons of sewage, of which up to 200 million gallons made it to Tampa Bay.
The crisis followed the closure of the sewage treatment plant at Albert Whitted Airport, reducing the system’s capacity. But the spills also coincided with heavy rains, which flowed into the sewage system through cracked and leaky pipes. The city estimates between 30 and 80 percent of that stormwater inundation comes through private lines.
Palenchar said the city fixes its own pipes, prioritizing neighborhoods that have a big difference in sewage flows between wet and dry weather, which indicates groundwater infiltration. There are 887 miles of public sewer mains in the city. But even a rehabbed city network wouldn’t fix the problem, as there is likely about that much private piping in the city, too. A conservative estimate of 50 feet of private sewer lines multiplied by 82,000 utility customers is about 777 miles.
That’s why the city is considering this ordinance, which officials stressed is meant only to be a first step toward modernizing the private lines.
Here’s how the ordinance, if passed in its current form, would work: Starting Jan. 1, 2021, if city workers notice a problem with a private sewer pipe, property owners would have six months — plus a 60-day extension the property owner could apply for — to have the damage inspected and, if necessary, repaired or replaced.
If a property owner fails to act, city workers could refer the property to the Code Enforcement Board, which can assess fines.
But defective pipes are tough to find. The primary way the city checks for failed private lines is through smoke testing, Palenchar said, which is when workers pump smoke into the system in a particular neighborhood. If smoke is rising from the ground, it could mean there’s a pipe breach.
The city is broken into 148 “basins," or areas for smoke testing, and workers have tested about one-fifth of the basins. The plan is to complete the smoke testing across the city by the end of 2023.
But smoke isn’t a very effective way to identify problems that might persist feet underground — smoke will reveal problems in something like 1 percent of homes or less, Palenchar said.
There are several different kinds of pipes, each with their own problems. Cast iron pipes, from the early to mid 20th century, are sturdy, but they can develop a coating of rust on the inside that reduces the pipe’s diameter, leading to clogs. The rust can be scoured off with a tool that shoots pressurized water, said Joe Denick, co-owner of Pinellas Park plumbing company Clog Kings, which does work all over the Tampa Bay area.
Orangeburg pipes — which are basically paper coated in tar and were popular from the 1950s until the 1970s, when almost 60 percent of St. Petersburg’s housing stock was built — can disintegrate, leaving a property owner with little choice other than replacement. Sometimes a crushed Orangeburg pipe can be relined, Denick said, but that process can be more expensive per foot than digging up the pipes and replacing them. In instances where the alternative is going under a concrete slab, it may be the only choice.
Denick said replacing old pipes with new PVC lines that don’t rust or disintegrate costs about $55 to $75 per foot, meaning 50 feet is at least $2,750.
There would be a slightly more stringent requirement for buildings with Orangeburg pipes, which generally last two to three decades. The new ordinance would require the entire length of a damaged Orangeburg pipe to be inspected by camera because, city officials said, if there is one breach in an Orangeburg pipe, there are likely more.
Ideally, according to Palenchar, the city will have a rebate program in place soon to encourage property owners to get their pipes inspected, and if necessary, repaired.
Officials are developing a pilot program in Maximo Moorings and Greater Pinellas Point, whereby the city will have a plumber inspect sewer lines and property owners may be able to take advantage of funding and low-interest loans for the repairs. Once enough lines have been repaired, city water officials will compare the sewage flows during rainstorms to see if the fixes prevented inundation from ground water.
If the study reveals the fixes helped, the city could open up the rebate program to more property owners.
“The expectation is that we should see a more significant reduction,” Palenchar said.
Property owners in those two pilot neighborhoods who are interested in the program can visit stpete.org/water/lateral_lines.php to sign up for an inspection.
Home inspector Christine Shelton, who co-owns Shelton Home Inspections with her husband, said she started recommending several months ago that clients get their sewer lines inspected. For a 1,500 square-foot home, she said, it costs between $250 and $350.
“It’s just something we’ve said we can’t ignore anymore," she said. “Our city is old. Our construction is old.”
First reading of the ordinance will occur at the Oct. 17 City Council meeting. Second reading and the public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Nov. 7.