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Hermine's heavy rains causing sewage woes across Tampa Bay

Hurricane Hermine continued its deluge and overloaded sewage systems across the bay area on Thursday. In Largo, manholes kept spewing raw sewage, including this overflow that left bits of toilet paper and a dollar bill visible. [KATHRYN VARN  |   Times]
Hurricane Hermine continued its deluge and overloaded sewage systems across the bay area on Thursday. In Largo, manholes kept spewing raw sewage, including this overflow that left bits of toilet paper and a dollar bill visible. [KATHRYN VARN | Times]
Published Sep. 1, 2016

Across the Tampa Bay area, the heavy rains of Hurricane Hermine did more than lash palm trees, submerge docks and flood streets on Thursday.

The storm also swamped aging sewer systems, leading to raw sewage gushing from manholes, streaming down streets and forcing Pinellas County's largest city to dump partially-treated waste into the bay itself.

Millions of gallons of sewage have been spilled or dumped across the region since the storm's outer bands began to deluge the region this week — a pointed and smelly reminder that Tampa Bay's sewer infrastructure has struggled with stormy weather.

The state received reports of overflows from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

The biggest reported overflow so far? Pinellas County Utilities said it discharged 7.3 million gallons of sewage that didn't fully meet state environmental standards into Joe's Creek on Wednesday.

The county also reported 39 overflows from manholes and pump stations on Wednesday and sent pumper and tanker trucks to six sites to help stem the spills.

The City of Tampa released sewage into the Hillsborough River. The City of St. Petersburg dumped into Tampa Bay. One of Clearwater's sewer plants shut down after being overwhelmed by three times the amount of flow it was designed to handle. Sewage flowed through nearby streets of the Marshall Street plant in North Greenwood as crews scrambled to get the plant up and running again.

St. Petersburg began discharging partially-treated wastewater into Tampa Bay at some point late Wednesday or early Thursday. But Mayor Rick Kriseman's office declined to say when the dump started or how much sewage flowed into the bay after city workers opened the pipe that funnels the sewage into the waters about a ¼-mile east of Albert Whitted Airport.

The city said it estimated the sewage to be about 90 percent rain and stormwater based on testing done during prior dumps. Testing during June's discharge showed bacteria levels about 60 times what is considered safe.

"Guys are working double time," said Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby in a text message. "Won't have any (information about the) amount until weather event ends."

The city reported to the state three instances of manholes popping in different areas of the city, releasing raw sewage. But the notifications to the Department of Environmental Protection didn't include spillage numbers or the location of the manholes.

St. Petersburg's sewage woes — more than 40 million gallons have been spilled since last August — aren't an isolated problem.

Tampa discharged 54,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the Hillsborough River just north of the Columbus Drive bridge.

"It was just a direct result of the amount of the rain," Tampa Wastewater Director Eric Weiss said. "It could have been significantly worse."

Wednesday night's discharge was less than a sixth of the 352,000 gallons discharged at the same spot during Tropical Storm Colin in June. The reason it wasn't more is that a $7.3 million pumping station has since come online downstream near the Tampa Convention Center.

Small spills occurred in Land O'Lakes and Treasure Island. St. Pete Beach and Pinellas County also reported overflows.

In Clearwater, the city's Marshall Street Plant Water Pollution Control Facility was overwhelmed by sewage flows.

Designed to handle 10 million gallons a day, the plant saw flows of 30 million before it went down, said Clearwater spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

As the city worked to repair the plant, sewage was flowing out of nearby manholes and down streets, Castelli said at 4:15 p.m. The amount spilled was still being determined, she said.

Meanwhile Thursday, manholes in Largo continued to spew raw sewage.

Nearly a foot of rain fell on the city Wednesday, overwhelming its wastewater system, officials said. Manholes all over the city, especially on the western end, began to spew raw sewage. Meanwhile, the city's wastewater treatment plant spilled partially treated sewage into Cross Bayou.

More sewage from the plant overflowed into the bayou overnight after a pump failed, said Irvin Kety, the city's environmental services director. The filtering system also failed, resulting in some "solids" flowing out as part of the spill, Kety said.

Alicja Morawski-Hermann lives across from a spewing manhole on Donegan Road.

"Every time when we have a bigger rain... it's the same," said Morawski-Hermann, who has lived in the house for 13 years. Trees in front yard block view for the most part, "but it still stinks!"

Largo's totals were also undetermined.

Hermine is the latest sign that Tampa Bay cities' infrastructure is not up to the task of handling the rain that comes with big storms.

Back in June, after Tropical Storm Colin's rains forced St. Petersburg to dump 10 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, the city spent $500,000 to modify the plant, closed in 2015, so that it could store 3 million gallons of sewage in emergencies.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, a South Pasadena Republican, called for a state investigation of St. Petersburg's sewer system after Colin. She said she is encouraged by the millions earmarked by Kriseman and the City Council to fix leaky pipes and increase capacity.

"It's not just St. Pete," Peters said. "This is happening all over."

It will likely take days for an accurate total of sewage spilled across the region to be determined, Peters said.

"Right now, it's a moving target," she said.

Times staff writers Mark Puente, Richard Danielson, Tony Marrero and Tracey McManus contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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