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In St. Pete, your sewer line is your responsibility | Editorial

City officials say the proposed policy gives residents more time to fix issues with their sewer lines. But expect more pressure to get the work done.
Workers repair a broken pressurized sewer line along 62nd Avenue N. A proposed city ordinance focuses on private sewer lines, rather than city-owned lines. [JAY CONNER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 5

During St. Petersburg’s sewage crisis between 2015 and 2017, St. Petersburg dumped nearly 1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage under ground and in waterways. The city is still dealing with the consequences and better preparing for the future. The City Council on Thursday will take up a proposal that will require homeowners to pay more attention to the sewer line running from their home to the city’s pipes—and take on more responsibility for making timely repairs.

Council members have little choice, and it’s the right direction in the long run. In 2017, the council approved a consent order with the state, agreeing to put $326 million toward making repairs and improvements to the sewage system following the discharges. That consent order also came with requirements, including passing an ordinance “regarding the replacement of private laterals that contribute inflow and infiltration to the city’s system” no later than June 30, 2020. The proposed ordinance would require homeowners to have their private sewer lines checked by a plumber and repaired or replaced at their expense if the city finds a problem with the line. If they don’t get the work done within six months, or eight months if they receive an extension, they will have to come before the city’s code enforcement board.

The proposed ordinance theoretically gives residents more time to fix a problem with their private line than they have now. The city code already requires homeowners to be responsible for their private sewer lines and gives them 20 days to correct any issue. The proposed ordinance would extend that to six months and give residents the option of a two-month extension.

The primary method the city intends to use to examine private laterals is smoke testing, a process in which employees put smoke through a neighborhood’s pipe system and see if any emerges from underground. But even the city’s water resources director notes that smoke testing can only detect problems in about 1 percent of homes. The true test of the future of St. Petersburg’s sewage system is the city’s new pilot program in Maximo Moorings and Greater Pinellas Point. The program allows homeowners to apply for a free inspection of their lines by a plumber “pre-qualified by the city.” Should the plumber find an issue with the homeowner’s pipes, the city will offer some funding toward repair. More importantly, the inspections will help the city determine what portion of sewage issues are caused by private lines rather than city pipes. That information will give city officials a more informed picture about how to proceed.

Fixing homeowners’ private lateral lines is one step toward improving St. Petersburg’s overall system. The City Council has little choice but to act in compliance with the consent agreement with the state. But in the long run, it will have to continue to educate homeowners about their responsibilities and to find ways to help low-income residents cover the cost of repairs.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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