ST. PETERSBURG — A new city rule is now on the books that requires property owners to fix their broken private sewer pipes.
The new rule only puts in writing what has always been true: that pipes on private property are the responsibility of the property owner. But the ordinance could lead to the city compelling property owners to make expensive repairs — though likely not many, at least for now.
The City Council was required to pass an ordinance addressing private sewer pipes by June 2020 as part of the consent order the city signed with state officials after the 2015-2016 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 city officials said flowed into the sewage system through cracked and leaky pipes. The city estimates between 30 and 80 percent of stormwater inundation comes through private lines rather than city-owned pipes.
The ordinance passed 7-1 Thursday. Here’s how it will 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.
Having a broken private sewer pipe was already a code violation, and the new ordinance actually relaxes the timeline for property owners. Under the old rules, if the city noticed a broken pipe, homeowners would have 20 to 25 days to fix the problem, plus a 30-day extension, before appearing before the Code Enforcement Board.
For now, the ordinance doesn’t have sharp teeth. The city’s primary method for searching for damaged pipes is by pumping the wastewater system full of smoke. If smoke rises from the ground, it could mean a pipe is breached. But that’s not a tremendously effective method, water officials said, and they don’t expect to find many broken pipes that way.
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There are several different kinds of pipes — known as laterals, as they run sideways from the street to structures. PVC pipes are preferred because they don’t disintegrate or rust. Cast iron pipes are sturdy but can develop rust on the inside, limiting the pipe’s diameter, which can lead to clogging. The pipes most vulnerable to failure are Orangeburg pipes, which are essentially made from paper coated in tar. Those pipes can collapse or disintegrate altogether.
The ordinance specifically targets Orangeburg pipes, imposing a more stringent inspection requirement. The entire length of a damaged Orangeburg pipe must be inspected by camera.
Before the vote, Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes sought to dispel concerns that the ordinance would force upon homeowners a new burden.
“Anybody characterizing the ordinance that way is just wrong," he said. “But it has always been true that the plumbing on your private property is your responsibility.”
Council member Gina Driscoll, the lone no vote, expressed concern that there isn’t a way to alleviate inspection and repair costs that some property owners will incur. City officials have said a pilot program to help cover those costs is in the works, and if successful, a rebate program will follow.