St. Petersburg’s 2015 wastewater dumps were part of a 30-year problem

Ebb and flow.

click to enlarge BUGGING OUT: The dark stuff at the bottom isn’t what you think — it’s millions of beneficial microorganisms. - CATHY SALUSTRI
Cathy Salustri
BUGGING OUT: The dark stuff at the bottom isn’t what you think — it’s millions of beneficial microorganisms.

Some people might believe the first time St. Petersburg pumped sewage into local waterways was in August 2015, when the Kriseman administration infamously allowed its public works department to pump raw sewage — diluted with plenty of stormwater, but sewage nonetheless — into Clam Bayou, the tidal estuary that flows into Boca Ciega Bay.

Creative Loafing has learned that, while Kriseman’s “apoopcalypse” may have received the lion’s share of media attention, St. Petersburg has a history of pumping sewage into local waterways — one that dates back at least to the mid-1990s.

In interviews with public works employees, CL ascertained that employees at the now-shuttered Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility would, as needed, pump sewage into Tampa Bay. 

The sewage, these workers say, had some treatment — but not enough.

Ken Wise, the chief plant operator at the city’s Southwest Water Reclamation Facility, told CL that, during his tenure at Whitted, the city pumped sewage into Tampa Bay. “I know it happened,” he said, although “not on a regular basis.” 

Why were the discharges happening at all?

AWWRF could handle about 12 million gallons per day of incoming raw sewage (influent). When more sewage than that flowed into the plant, the plant had no storage provisions, so something had to go out to make room for incoming material. 

To jump forward a bit, here’s how the city treated sewage before discharging it into Tampa Bay after it closed AWWRF: Operators would take the sewage furthest along in the treatment process and discharge it into Tampa Bay. That meant what St. Petersburg pumped into Tampa Bay received minimal treatment. 

“I would call the treatment that did occur, at best, primary treatment. The discharge in Tampa Bay went though the treatment plant tanks and had time for some solids settling,” Wise explained. “There was no true biological treatment. We did treat with bleach before [discharging] to Tampa Bay.”

In essence, plant workers would let the solids settle and bleach the waste before pumping it into the estuary straight from the collection system. 

By “biological treatment” Wise means the bacterial processes sewage undergoes whereby microorganisms, or “bugs,” eat their way through wastewater and help decontaminate it, a crucial part of making sewage into the much-safer reclaimed water.

Here’s how sewage discharges into Tampa Bay were treated before the cty closed AWWRF: They weren’t.

“It never got to the plant,” Wise said. “This was a problem all over that the collection system was unable to get sewage to the plants. The pipes were full and coming out of the manholes. So it either flowed down the streets to stormwater drains or we pumped the pipes out to keep it from backing up in folks’ yards.”

As for pumping into Boca Ciega Bay or Clam Bayou? Wise can’t recall that ever happening, but, he said, “I’m sure there were backups. It wasn’t on purpose, it wasn’t on a regular basis, [but] I know it happened.”

A backup results from an overtaxed system and a water reclamation facility unable to handle influent fast enough; the result is that the system logjams, and the sewage that should flow into the facility must find other means of escaping the intricate series of pipes underlying the city.

Overflows, too, were common in St. Petersburg. According to Wise, they’d happened “ever since I started.”

Wise started work with the city in 1974.

Was it reported?

“It should have been,” Wise said. At the time, reporting such discharges was above his pay grade. That responsibility fell to a lead operator.

Frank Niles, a water reclamation facility operations specialist with the city who worked at the Whitted facility during several of the deliberate discharges, said at one point such reports would have been under the purview of Tim Frogue, who “was relieved of his duties with the city,” Niles said. 

Frogue died in 2015. The city only has records of 10 discharges — ranging from 10 gallons of digested sludge (the separated solids from sewage) to 20 million gallons of  treated effluent — between 1997 and 2008. The city has no official records of what treatment that effluent underwent; it also has no record of discharges directly from the collection system. The state, too, has no such records. Given the length of time that’s passed, that’s not shocking — but it does mean no one will ever know if St. Petersburg handled reporting these discharges properly.

“Our communication wasn’t up to par,” Wise said of prior sewage discharge issues. 

These discharges span 30 years of St. Petersburg’s history, including Mayors David Fischer (1991-2001), Rick Baker (2001-2010), Bill Foster (2010-2014) and Rick Kriseman (2014-present). They also span many separate public works directors — George Webb formally held the title from 1991-2002; from 2002-2005, institutional memories suggest both Tish Elston and Andy Houston shared the responsibilities of the job (“the job was also undefined with no real formal authority or responsibility given to anyone,” Public Works Communications Director Bill Logan says of  the position from 2002-2010); they also suggest Elston and Mike Connors shared the role informally from 2005-2010, when Connors took over as director. Connors left on the heels of the Clam Bayou discharges; currently, Claude Tankersley directs.

“It troubles me that we had a history of it, and that we had incidents where it happened while I’ve been in this seat,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said when presented with evidence of prior sewage discharges. “It’s an example of, unfortunately...  not making the needed investments in the infrastructure, so while it may have happened in the past, and it’s unacceptable, we’re doing to do what we can so that it doesn’t happen in the future.” 

“We take these jobs to protect the public and the quality of life,” Wise said. “It hurt to see this. No operator wants to [do that].”

Contact Cathy Salustri here.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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