ST. PETERSBURG — It may be a new year but the city finds itself still dealing with an old problem: spills at its sewage plants.
The city announced Thursday that two spills at its Northeast sewage plant at 1160 62nd Ave. NE had been contained.
But the release — with the headline "Reclaimed Leak stopped (twice)" — left out an important detail: officials don’t know how much of the 266,000 gallon spill may have reached Smacks Bayou, which is near Placido Bayou and leads into the Tampa Bay.
The Tampa Bay Times contacted sewer officials on Saturday and asked if the spill had reached waters that empty into the bay. Officials said it had not.
Public Works spokesman Bill Logan said that much of the spill — which had come from a storage tank on the plant’s eastern edge — had been contained in a retention pond south of the plant’s property. That retention pond is separated by mangroves from Smacks Bayou.
"Whatever made it to the pond did not go any further than the pond," Logan said.
Later Saturday, the city’s position changed. Logan texted this update:
"Water from the retention pond does convey into Smacks Bayou. But as water into pond there is no way to know how much of that fully-treated reclaimed-quality water--if any---went into the waters leading into the bay.
"That’s the final word."
Although the reclaimed-quality water is safe to sprinkle on lawns, it’s a violation of state law to release it into surface waters because it has been treated with ammonia, chlorine, phosphorus and nitrate, all harmful to the marine ecosystem.
"Nothing was released directly into surface water, " Logan said.
This incident is a reminder of St. Petersburg’s 2015-16 sewage crisis, when storms, aging infrastructure and the decision to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant helped produce one of the worst sewage spills in Florida history.
The city’s antiquated and overwhelmed sewage system released up to 1 billion gallons of waste. Most of it was pumped underground into the aquifer, but about 200 million was released into streets, waterways and the Tampa Bay.
Last year a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation blamed the city’s 20-year failure to invest in its sewage system and decisions made by the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman.
The report specifically criticized Kriseman for not reopening Albert Whitted after the first spills of 2015. The City Council voted to close it in 2011, and the administration carried out that plan in 2015, leaving the city with three sewage plants just months before the problems started.
The city is now carrying out a $326 million, state-mandated plan to fix its sewage system. Starting this month, residents’ monthly utility bills went up to help pay for that work.
There were also issues with City Hall informing residents about spills, which is why the mayoral administration hired Logan in December 2016.
So what led to last week’s spill? City officials said it happened because of a communication lapse between contractors working on the plant and plant operators.
Contractors didn’t fully tighten bolts on a piece of equipment, which caused an initial leak. Then a "level sensor" failed, opening a valve on a storage tank, releasing 266,000 gallons into a ditch that took much of it out of the plant a large retention pond to the south of the property abutting the bayou.
Another miscommunication between contractors and plant workers led to another smaller spill a few weeks ago.
The contractor will be reminded of the importance of keeping everyone in the loop, Logan said.
The city also announced Monday that it would take water samples from the bayou and post the results at a later date.