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Responding to raw sewage dump, St. Pete officials announce fixes to inadequate stormwater system

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete city officials are working on a handful of fixes to its sometimes overburdened sewage system.

Earlier this month above average, consistent rainfall caused the city to divert untreated wastewater into Clam Bayou, one of St. Pete’s estuaries, to the tune of 15 million gallons.

The biggest fix to ensuring that doesn’t happen again includes adding an additional 900 horsepower of pumps to the system. There are now five 250 horsepower pumps. Two additional 450 horsepower pumps are planned by the end of this year.

Top level water treatment officials said had that been in place during the Clam Bayou dump, the situation could have been averted.

Another plan to create a “reject” water storage tank is planned for the summer of 2016 that would help in emergency situations like that seen in early August.

There are also plans for a Childs Park pump station and improvements to lateral lines in Maximo Moorings.

But despite planned improvements City Council members are still reeling over the raw sewage dump that forced water closings at Eckerd College and in Boca Ciega Bay.

Council members Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse echoed sentiments that the Albert Whitted Airport wastewater facility should not have been taken offline so quickly.

“To me it’s clear that in hindsight we shouldn’t have shut down Albert Whitted,” Nurse said.

And there’s also concern over the city’s communication to areas affected by the re-routed wastewater. Both Eckerd College and Gulfport were notified of the dump far after it began. Gulfport residents bombarded a City Council meeting last week to lament the breakdown in communication.

As a result the city has installed an information specialist. And council member Bill Dudley suggested it may be a good idea to have some sort of communication director within each major city department to ensure no further lapses in communication occur.

“When we’re wrong we say we’re wrong,” council member Amy Foster said, referring not just to the dump, but also the coordination with neighboring cities and partners. “It’s not acceptable for this to happen.”

The dump brought huge backlash to the city with residents contending the city could have found other options and should have been more prepared for it in the first place.

The city contended there was no choice but to reroute sewage to Clam Bayou and the empty Albert Whitted facility that ultimately spewed about 1 million gallons of raw sewage into Tampa Bay. It was the result of a rare weather event that brought unrelenting rain for days on end. Had the flows not been diverted, city officials say sewage could have eventually backed up into people’s yards and potentially even homes.

Regardless, news of the dump has thrust the city’s sewage challenges into the limelight. Now City Council’s Public Services and Infrastructure committee will ask the full council to direct staff to conduct an independent study of the city’s system.

Kornell speculated that an earlier study suggesting growth would occur in the northeastern part of the city at a higher rate than downtown was simply not accurate. That previous study took into account the possibility of having a passenger rail line built – a plan that has been since abandoned for the time being.

If City Council approves the committee’s ask it does not guarantee the administration will follow through. City Council can request a study, but not mandate it. Kornell inquired as to whether or not council had authority to force a study on its own. City attorneys said they would look into that.

Previous requests by the council also instigated by Kornell regarding the Tampa Bay Rays’ economic impact were ignored by the administration.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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