St. Petersburg spills sewage at Southwest plant
ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than a day after Mayor Rick Kriseman stood in front of a line of television cameras to tout the improvements at the Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College, there was an overflow of sewage at that very same plant.
About 50,000 gallons was spilled Wednesday night at the plant after heavy rains. The spill happened because part of the plant's treatment capacity — the chlorine contact basin — which kills harmful bacteria in sewage was out of service because of the massive construction going on at the plant, said Public Works Administration spokesman Bill Logan.
The sewage had been treated until the final disinfectant stage and appeared to be contained to a retention pond on the plant's property, Logan said in a text.
The plant is being expanded after the city's recent sewage crisis, when its ancient and overburdended sewage system released up to 200 million gallons of waste over 18 months from 2015-16.
UPDATE: Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said close to two inches of rain falling in one hour ended up doubling the flows into the plant to 42 million gallons. That surge caused the spill out of the chlorine contact chamber, which had been halfway shut down because of the expansion going on at the plant.
Originally Tankerslely and Logan said the spill flowed into a retention pond. Later, after the Times pressed the city on the exact location of the pond, the city backtracked.
The sewage soaked into the ground around the chlorine contact chamber, Logan said.
The 50,000 gallons never reached the pond, he said.
Asked to explain the shifting reports, Logan said: "It's a fluid situation. That's why we have 24 hours to report this."
The contact chamer is located in the south-central portion of the plant's property, Logan said. Eckerd College officials were on the site today and were satisfied there was no issue, he said.
The sewage was "mostly treated," according to an earlier news release. Tankersely, in a text from Logan, referred to the sewage as "treated, chlorinated water." He said no raw or untreated sewage was discharged.
The city notified residents about the spill at 8:30 a.m. Thursday when it sent a notice to the media at 8:36 a.m. After last year's spills, Tankersley told council members that the public would be notified of any future spills.
Logan said the Southwest plant operator sent out an email around 11 p.m. Wednesday, but he had already gone to bed. He found the email when he checked his phone around 6:15 a.m. Thursday morning. Logan then notified the Times because a reporter had asked during the rains if there had been any spills.
"Residents would have been notified immediately if anything went further than the lines of the plant," Logan said.
The spill took place at 8:40 p.m. and was reported to the state, according to a notification form provided by the city.
The Southwest plant's upgrades will more than double its capacity. At the press conference on Tuesday, Kriseman and Tankersley said the system has been greatly improved and would be able to withstand all but the worst summer rains.
Heavy rains increased flow into the plant Wednesday night leading to the spill, according to the city's notification, which lasted about 20 minutes.
Officials are still trying to figure out why operators didn't redirect the sewage to a storage tank, Logan said.
"We're trying to get to the bottom of this," he said.
Kriseman was not immediately available for comment. He is locked in a tight re-election race with former Mayor Rick Baker. The city's sewage crisis has been the leading topic so far. Logan said the mayor would comment once officials determine the cause of the spill.
The city is poised to sign a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to clean up its act in the wake of the sewage crisis. The state is also conducting a criminal investigation.
St. Petersburg wasn't the only city to experience sewage spills in Pinellas County last night. A lightning strike at a lift station in Largo led to about 30,000 gallons of sewage being spilled, according to DEP records.
Check tampabay.com for updates.