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Lawmakers learn Pinellas is responsible for half of Florida’s wastewater overflow this year

Lack of capacity, deteriorating sewer lines, broken equipment, and an immense amount of rain are to blame for overwhelmed sewer systems that have dumped more than 248 million gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay and other Pinellas waterways so far this year.

Kathleen Peters
Kathleen Peters

Those explanations, provided to the county’s legislative delegation during a fact-finding session Tuesday, did not sit well with at least one delegation member.

“I get frustrated when I hear excuses and I hear climate change,” state Rep. Kathleen Peters said.

Some cities, she said, had neglected their duty to keep up with infrastructure improvements. As an example, Peters referred to the Penny for Pinellas. That tax, she said, was to improve infrastructure, yet very few projects had to do with improving cities’ sewer systems. In a county that worries about tropical weather and potential hurricanes, making sure wastewater and storm water systems were ready for such rain events should have been an easy call. Instead, the money went elsewhere.

“I don’t want to hear excuses anymore,” Peters said, adding that she wasn’t making her statements “to attack anyone.”

Peters made her statements toward the end of a special delegation meeting called for members to hear why the county, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Largo had overflows during the Hurricane Hermine. The meeting is the first of at least two. The delegation plans to meet again in 60 days to hear from the public and to get a progress report and more details from the county and the cities.

The sheer magnitude of the various overflows came into sharp focus when Mary Yeargen, the southwest district director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, laid out the numbers.

In 2014, the entire state of Florida saw 137 million gallons of overflow; in 2015, the state amount was 151 gallons; so far this year, the statewide overflow is about 262 million gallons. So far this year, Pinellas County has had overflows totaling more than 248 million gallons.

More than half the wastewater discharge for the entire state of Florida so far this year, came from Pinellas County, she said.

“We don’t want to see this happen again,” Yeargen said.

Jack LatvalaOfficials from the county and all three cities said they have projects in place to improve and expand their wastewater systems. But it’s not a quick fix. Many of the improvements will take years to get into place.

And, they said, fixing the publicly owned pipes is just part of the problem. A lot of the problem comes from so-called lateral pipes — the ones that run from peoples’ homes and businesses to the street where they meet the government-owned pipes.

Many of those lateral pipes have deteriorated and allow rainwater to flow into the sewer system, which helps cause the system to become overwhelmed.

Irvin Kety, Largo’s environmental services director, estimated inflow from those privately owned lateral pipes was responsible for up to half of the rainwater incursion that causes many of the problems. While Largo is improving its system, unless the privately owned pipes are fixed, “we’re still going to have overflow,” Kety said.

“We’ve got to get a handle on those private systems,” Kety said.

Rick-Kriseman   George CretekosThe problem is, the cities can’t go on private property and fix privately owned pipes. Homeowners will have to foot those bills. Kety said it’s hard to estimate what that might cost. It depends on the length of the pipe, whether it has to replaced, and whether it’s under a concrete drive. But, he said, a ballpark figure could put the cost at $2,000 to $3,000.

State Sen. Jack Latvala suggested cities might pass an ordinance requiring homeowners to get the lateral lines evaluated before they sell their homes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he had given a sample ordinance to the city attorney for consideration. That could come before the St. Petersburg City Council.

Both he and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos suggested the delegation could help pass a statute or set up a rebate or loan program to help homeowners pay for the repairs.

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Janet Long suggests bringing all the sewer systems in Pinellas under one umbrella

Janet LongIn recent months, St. Petersburg has become the poster child for a crumbling sewer infrastructure that’s dumped millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay.

But the problem of failing infrastructure is much bigger than St. Pete. It’s countywide. The county, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs — just to name four — also have had problems with sewer systems unable to handle recent heavy rains.

It’s an urgent problem, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said Monday. It’s one complicated by a fragmented system that’s undergone decades of neglect. It’s time, Long said, to consider a countywide sewer system, somewhat like the solid waste management system.

The county runs the one landfill in Pinellas and oversees the one waste-to-energy facility in Pinellas. On the other hand, Pinellas County has 17 sewer systems — one belonging to the county, 13 belonging to municipalities, and three belonging to private landowners, according to county records.

The cost to upgrade those, in particular for the systems run by smaller cities like Treasure Island, South Pasadena, Gulfport, Redington Shores, and North Redington Beach, could be prohibitive.

“These are big infrastructure projects that one little city can’t handle on its own,” Long said.

Even the bigger cities will have problems affording improvements.

A better system, she said, would bring all the systems under one umbrella. Then, a study could be done to see how best to develop a state-of-the-art system for the entire county. After that, a decision could be made on ways to free up the necessary resources to pay to have the system put in place.

“I’m hoping that this task force will help us get there,” Long said. She was referring to a county task force Pinellas commissioners agreed to set up to find long-range solutions to the flooding and sewer infrastructure problems.

The failing infrastructure is a problem caused by decades of neglect, she said, in part because there’s never been an outcry to improve the wastewater system.

“There’s never been a brouhaha over the sewer system until now,” Long said. But now that people are paying attention, it’s time to find a long-term solution.

“We can’t wait 20 years,” she said.

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Jack Latvala: What about using barges to prevent sewer overflows?

latvala, jack - flooding

On the eve of a meeting between the Pinellas Legislative delegation and city officials, state Sen. Jack Latvala has presented one possible solution to prevent further overflows of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

And he wants St. Petersburg officials to tell him if it’s a good idea and, if not, why not.

“I would like your presentation to include if it is feasible for barges or tankers to be brought into Bayboro to be used for heavy rain events and, if it is not viable, why not,” the Clearwater Republican wrote Monday in a letter to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Ben Kirby, spokesman for Kriseman, said the idea is one of many St. Petersburg officials have discussed. It will be one of the ideas that Claude Tankersley, the city’s public works chief, will present at Tuesday’s meeting.

The state of St. Petersburg’s sewer system has risen to the top of officials’ agendas after the city poured millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into the bay during storms this summer. St. Petersburg officials say part of the problem is the city’s old sewer system that allows rain water to infiltrate and overburden the system, causing backups and overflows.

Earlier this month, Latvala and fellow Republican, state Rep. Kathleen Peters, called for a meeting of the Legislative Delegation to discuss what’s needed to prevent another overflow. The Pinellas County commission has also called for a task force to seek solutions to the problem.

The delegation is scheduled to meet Tuesday, which Latvala referred to, saying he was looking forward to hearing the city’s presentation.

“We are all deeply concerned by the discharge of hundreds of millions of wastewater that was not fully treated into our bay,” Latvala wrote. “I recognize that the city has projects underway and is planning that will alleviate these discharges in the future. But my question is, do we continue to sit by and allow these discharges happen during every major rain event until those projects are completed?”

Latvala said a constituent suggested bringing in relocatable storage units, such as barges, bladders, or tankers that the city could rent and place at Bayboro Harbor to hold “millions of gallons of outtake.”

“I would like for the city to consider renting bladders or barges and then pumping the flow to a processing plant when allowed after the rain event.”

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Joe Henderson: Polluted water in St. Pete leaves little room for mistake

We love the water around here. We boat on it, haul fish from it, swim in it, and build houses that provide spectacular views of it. Water is such a big deal around here that many people identify us not by the actual places where we live, but by the catchall name of Tampa Bay.

So while having local waterways polluted with millions of gallons of untreated sewage would be a major story anywhere, it is a catastrophe here. And that is what we have, stretching from St. Petersburg into Pasco County.

It has been called a “spill,” but that’s a little like calling the Johnstown Flood a “leak.” Fingers are being pointed in all directions, and we can only assume follow-up investigations into this will narrow down the culprits. A mess of this size almost certainly was a group effort.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday on Craven R. Askew, chief operator of the Northwest sewage plant in St. Petersburg. Askew asked St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman for whistleblower protection after publicly revealing a two-year-old study that warned something like that could happen.

In 2011, the city council voted to close the plant as a cost-saving measure. Askew had warned the three remaining treatment plants could be overwhelmed by the kind of rain that accompanied Hurricane Hermine two weeks ago.

That’s just what happened, as the remaining plants couldn’t handle the load and about 150 million gallons of sewage were loosed on city streets and waterways.

There were warning signs even before then, though. There were other, smaller spills that should have sounded an alarm, but apparently did not.

Kriseman, who took office in 2014, says he was unaware of Askew’s concerns. Well, Kriseman and everyone else knows about them now, so once the finger-pointing and backside-covering stops, the question becomes what the plan will be to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Hermine was a modest storm as tropical systems go, and yet the areas along the coast from Pasco and Pinellas were belted by widespread flooding and this wastewater nightmare. What would happen if there was a Category 3 or higher storm that took the path Hermine did?

Experts have been warning for years that all the land hugging the waters in our area could experience a Katrina-like disaster in the aftermath of a major hurricane. Hermine, comparatively, was a little puppy.

Damage and flooding would be unavoidable in that case, but there are steps the most vulnerable cities — and St. Petersburg qualifies — can take now that could mitigate the impact. I wonder if council members would have found another way to save money in 2011 if they could have looked into a crystal ball and foreseen what their pound-foolish approach would unleash.

Water is this area’s No. 1 resource. It forms the backbone of tourism and our quality of life, so let this be a lesson to all the officials and agencies charged with keeping that water clean. If you don’t get this one right, whatever else you do won’t matter much.

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DEP says St. Petersburg sewage discharges violate environmental laws

city-of-st-peteThe Florida Department of Environmental Protection has entered into a consent order with the City of St. Petersburg after determining the city violated environmental laws that resulted in the unpermitted discharges of sewage into Clam Bayou and Tampa Bay during August of 2015, June of 2016, and Aug. 31-Sept.13 of this year.

The 11-page document was signed by Mary Yeargan, Southwest District Director for the Florida DEP and sent to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Public Works Administer Claude Tankersley on Friday. Yeargan writes the DEP will soon be “reaching out to schedule a meeting in the very near future to discuss the terms of this Order.”

The DEP found violations to have occurred at three specific times: The first on Aug. 2-10 of 2015, when more than 31.5 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into Clam Bayou and surrounding neighborhoods.

On June 6-9 of 2016, approximately 230,000 gallons of untreated wastewater and effluent was released through overflows of manholes, and 9.77 million gallons of partially treated wastewater through the emergency outfall at the Albert Whitted Treatment Plant.

And from Aug. 31-Sept. 6 of 2016, unpermitted discharges of wastewater and effluent from several treatment plants, “resulted in the release of an unknown number of untreated wastewater and effluent through overflows of manholes and between 78 and 93 million gallons of partially treated wastewater” through Albert Whitted, and 58 million gallons of treated effluent to Jungle Lake.

In June, Pinellas County House District 69 Republican Kathleen Peters sent a letter to Florida DEP Secretary Jon Steverson, calling for an investigation into the city’s sewer system.

DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller says in June, the City of St. Petersburg and the DEP discussed a consent order, which sets up remedies and timelines “to reach solutions to bring the facility back into compliance.”

That document was delivered on Friday.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Friday that Mayor Kriseman is calling for an independent firm to investigate why a 2014 consultant’s study that indicated closing down the Albert Whitted sewer plant could lead to spills and dumps never reached his desk.

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Rick Kriseman calls for review of St. Petersburg water department management

kriseman-rick-tiger-bayMayor Rick Kriseman has called for a review of the management of the St. Petersburg water resources department.

Kriseman’s call comes in the wake of accusations by water resources employee Craven Askew that city officials knew closing the Albert Whitted sewer plant could cause overflows and the subsequent dumping of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Kriseman issued this statement late Friday afternoon:

“Included in Mr. Askew’s email is a consultant’s report that I believe has never been shared publicly or with my office or with City Council. As such, I have asked our legal and human resources departments to work with an independent firm to learn why this report has only recently surfaced and to conduct a thorough management review of Water Resources. I demand accountability to me, to city council, and to the citizens we serve.”

Askew claimed whistleblower status — which would protect him from firing or other retaliation — when he filed his complaint Thursday. The gist of the complaint was that city officials knew the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility, where the Albert Whitted wastewater was directed, was not capable of handling a heavy rain event. Yet, knowing that, Askew alleged, city officials closed Albert Whitted without making the necessary improvements.

In the complaint, Askew referred to a study that recommended improvements be made and completed before diverting the flow from Albert Whitted to Southwest.

“The city experienced high weather in August 2015, which caused over 30 million gallons spilled at Southwest, Clam Bayou, and Tampa Bay due to Albert Whitted shutdown,” Askew wrote. “We have since then had a rain event in June 2016 and September and August 2016 which discharged estimated sewage of 80 million gallons into Tampa Bay.”

Askew said he had told city management staff about his concerns in July.

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Tampa region leads state in demand for STEM jobs

Looking for a STEM job? Tampa Bay might just be the place to be.

The region added more than 39,000 private sector jobs over the year, and leads the state when it comes to high-skill, high-wage STEM jobs. According to the governor’s office, there were 15,727 openings in STEM fields in August.

“I am proud to announce today that the Tampa area added 39,500 new jobs over the year and also led the entire state in job demand with nearly 50,000 job openings,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Friday. “Because of our focus on creating a business-friendly environment, more job creators are choosing to invest in Florida, which means more opportunities for our families.”

Scott announced the monthly jobs numbers during a stop at All Access Multimedia, a Fort Myers marketing and production company that specializes in commercials, infomercials, and web videos.

The state added 22,600 private-sector jobs in August, bringing the total number of jobs created in 2016 to 167,100. The unemployment rate remains at 4.7 percent, one of the lowest rates since November 2007, according to the governor’s office.

“This is a great month,” said Scott, who noted the state has added nearly 1.2 million private sector jobs since he took office.

According to the Department of Economic Opportunity, 23 out of the 24 metro areas saw year-over-year jobs gains. In the Tampa region, professional and business services was one of the top industries over the year. The industry added 13,200 jobs, followed by the transportation and utilities industry with 7,900 new jobs.

The Tampa area also continues to be one of the metro regions with the most demand, with a reported 49,542 job openings in August.

The largest gains once again occurred in the Orlando area, where the state jobs agency reported 48,300 private sector job were added over the year. The unemployment rate in the Orlando area was at 4.4 percent, a 0.7 percentage point drop from August 2015. The Orlando area saw gains in the leisure and hospitality industry, adding 13,600 jobs over the year. Construction came in second with 10,200 new jobs, followed by education and health services with 8,400 new jobs.

Monroe County had the lowest unemployment rate in August at 3.1 percent; while Hendry County had the highest unemployment rate at 11.6 percent.

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St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman: “It’s been a tough couple of days”

Downed power lines, fallen trees, flooding, intersections without working traffic signals are just a few of the problems St. Petersburg is facing from the passing of Hurricane Hermine, Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

kriseman-rick-tiger-bay-840x440And even worse, the city’s sewer system was so overwhelmed by the rains that officials had to pour “millions” of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

“We know it’s been a tough couple of days,” Kriseman said.

Kriseman was speaking at a press conference early Friday at the city’s master fire station, 400 Dr. MLK St. S.

Although St. Petersburg officials had tried to prepare for heavy rains by draining the system and adding 3 million gallons of extra capacity to the Albert Whitted sewer plant, “it certainly” wasn’t enough, Kriseman said. The city received an average of 9 inches of rain on Wednesday alone at its three plants and 11 inches of rain at one facility.

“There was nothing we could do,” Kriseman said.

On the other hand, Kriseman said one goal officials have is to prevent sewage backing up into homes or pouring onto city streets.

“We’ve done a pretty good job in that respect,” Kriseman said.

Kriseman said he’s not sure how much wastewater went into the bay, but believed it was “millions” of gallons.

The city, he said, has both short- and long-term plans to solve St. Petersburg’s sewer woes. The City Council has earmarked about $58 million in the proposed 2016-17 budget.

The problem is not St. Petersburg’s alone. Other municipalities in the county are also having problems – a sign of a countrywide problem, Kriseman said.

“The country’s infrastructure is aging and it needs to be repaired,” he said. He called on Tallahassee and Washington to help make sure that happens.

Kriseman added a cautionary note.

“There are a lot of power lines down in this community,” he said. “If you don’t have to go out today, don’t go out.”

And, he said, be sure to stay out of flooded areas because live power lines may be in the water.

It’s unclear how many Pinellas residents are without power. Duke Energy said it’s staged more than 1,200 workers from Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky at three strategic locations to ensure a rapid response to service needs.

Customers who are without power can report outages in several ways:

Visiting the mobile website at m.duke-energy.com

Texting OUT to 57801 (Standard text and data charges may apply)

Calling the automated outage-reporting system at (800) 228-8485

For storm or power restoration updates, follow Duke Energy on Twitter (@DukeEnergy) and Facebook (Duke Energy).

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Hermine overwhelms St. Pete’s sewer system

Mayor Rick Kriseman on Tuesday assured St. Petersburg residents the city was prepared for the onslaught of rain expected from then-Tropical Depression 9.

kriseman2The lines had been cleared and cleaned, Kriseman said. The capacity of the system had been increased by 3 million gallons with improvements to the Albert Whitted sewer plant.

But the massive rainfall from the storm proved too much for the city’s system. By Wednesday night, St. Petersburg was discharging wastewater into Tampa Bay. That’s likely to continue at least until Hermine moves farther away.

“Our team is working really, really hard to manage this,” Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby said. “It’s an ongoing emergency.”

It’s unclear, Kirby said, how much wastewater is being dumped into the Bay. The totals won’t be available until the emergency is over.

This is the second time in recent months that St. Petersburg has had to pump wastewater into Tampa Bay. When Tropical Storm Colin hit in June, water made its way into leaky pipes and overloaded the system.

City officials said they had no choice then or now. If they didn’t discharge wastewater into the bay, the impact on residents would be much worse.

A statement from the city explained, “In order to prevent raw or diluted sewage from negatively impacting our residents and their homes, the city of St. Petersburg has initiated a controlled wastewater discharge into Tampa Bay.

“Based on prior samples during similar conditions, 90 percent of the discharge is expected to consist of rainwater/storm water.”

Kirby said officials are hoping residents will help the situation by conserving water — not washing clothes or doing other water-intense chores until a couple of days after the storm has passed.

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St. Pete sewer system ready for TD 9, mayor says

With memories of the effect Tropical Storm Colin had on St. Petersburg’s sewer system in June fresh in peoples’ minds, Mayor Rick Kriseman sought Tuesday to reassure residents the city is ready for Tropical Depression 9.

“The city is prepared for this event,” Kriseman said.

The sewer lines have been cleared, he said, and the capacity of the system has been increased.

But residents also need to help out. Kriseman asked that residents refrain from using large quantities of water during the expected rains. Do chores like laundry either before or a couple of days after the storm has passed.

Kriseman made his comments during a press conference on the steps of City Hall. He was flanked by police Chief Anthony Holloway, fire rescue Chief James Large, fire division chief of emergency management Dean Adamides, and public works administrator Claude Tankersley.

“We have prepared our system as best we can for this event,” Tankersley said.

Among the improvements made since June is an increase in the storage capacity of the Albert Whitted sewage plant. Officials had expected the expansion to take four months, but managed to complete the work in two months, Tankersley said. That gives the city a three-million-gallon storage facility that was lacking in June.

When Tropical Storm Colin hit the bay area in June, rainwater made its way into leaky sewer pipes and overloaded the system. The city had to pump partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay to cope with the overflow.

Since then, the city has worked not only to clean out the pipes but also to increase the system’s capacity. And the city council has earmarked millions for both short- and long-term upgrades and repairs to the aging system.

But the weather isn’t giving the city a break. It’s been a rainy summer since June, and Tropical Depression 9 is forecast to dump between four and eight inches of water on the Tampa Bay area in the 48-hour period beginning Wednesday.

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