Waste­water spills in­volve 2M gal­lons

Six in­ci­dents were re­ported to the state, but only four to the pub­lic, a de­par­ture from city pol­icy fol­low­ing the 2015-16 sewage cri­sis.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY JOSH SOLOMON Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERS­BURG — Nearly 230,000 gal­lons of waste­water spilled from a tank Mon­day at one of the city’s water treat­ment plants.

Those are just the lat­est of nearly 2 mil­lion gal­lons of waste­water to gush from city in­fra­struc­ture in the last three months.

That in­cludes an in­ci­dent that stretched from Au­gust into Septem­ber, when work­ers at an­other fa­cil­ity dis­cov­ered that a line that should have sent waste­water in the recla­ma­tion process back to the be­gin­ning of the plant for re­treat­ment had in­stead been con­nected straight to the stormwa­ter sys­tem. Over a pe­riod of 50 days, al­most 1.7 mil­lion gal­lons of waste­water were in­ad­ver­tently dumped into a nearby pond be­fore the ac­ci­dent was no­ticed, ac­cord­ing to the city’s re­port to the Flor­ida De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

Be­tween those in­ci­dents, records show there were four other spills. The six dis­charges, which in­clude three over a three­day pe­riod in Oc­to­ber, are the lat­est ex­am­ples of the city strug­gling to over­come the 2015-16 sewage dis­as­ter in which it re­leased up to a bil­lion gal­lons of waste — 200 mil­lion gal­lons of which ended up in Tampa Bay. They also come amid a change in the city’s pub­lic no­ti­fi­ca­tion prac­tices: It no longer no­ti­fies the pub­lic about spills that don’t leave fa­cil­ity grounds.

•••

The er­ror that caused the 1.7 mil­lion gal­lon spill ac­tu­ally hap­pened in Fe­bru­ary, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic works spokesman Bill Lo­gan.

To pre­pare for the in­stal­la­tion of new water recla­ma­tion fil­ters at the North­west Water Recla­ma­tion Fa­cil­ity in Jun­gle Ter­race, con­trac­tors ran a pipe to a man­hole on plant prop­erty. The pipe sat dor­mant

un­til the fil­ters be­came op­er­a­tional on Aug. 7.

The pipe was meant to carry back­wash water from the fil­ters to the sewer. Back­wash­ing is the process of clean­ing the fil­ters, which are like fine mesh sieves — re­claimed water flows over the fil­ters to clean off any gunk and de­tri­tus. Wash water is sup­posed to travel via pip­ing to a sewer line, which would re­turn the water to the be­gin­ning of the plant so it could be treated again.

Ex­cept the con­trac­tors didn’t con­nect the pipe to a sewer man­hole, but to a stormwa­ter drain that goes straight to the pond at nearby Wal­ter Fuller Park. The cor­rect and in­cor­rect man­holes were a few feet apart, Lo­gan said.

It took work­ers 50 days, un­til Sept. 27, to no­tice the mix-up. They dis­cov­ered the prob­lem dur­ing an in­spec­tion of the fa­cil­ity’s stormwa­ter sys­tem. The prob­lem, city staff dis­cov­ered, was that the man­hole wasn’t clearly marked, Lo­gan said. Sewer man­holes are sup­posed to be green, elec­tri­cal man­holes red. Stormwa­ter man­holes are left un­painted.

“Once we found the mis­take, we checked every man­hole, every pipe in the whole plant,” said Water Recla­ma­tion Oper­a­tions Spe­cial­ist Frank Niles. “This sit­u­a­tion with the con­trac­tor caused us to look at how we do things.”

Niles said 1.7 mil­lion gal­lons is 0.1 per­cent of the vol­ume of water the city recla­ma­tion plants pro­cessed dur­ing that 50-day pe­riod. But it was enough to raise the lev­els of E.coli and fe­cal co­l­iform in the park’s lake. Work­ers put up signs along the edge of the park warn­ing passers-by of con­tam­i­nated water. The signs re­mained un­til Oct. 22, once pol­lu­tion lev­els re­turned to nor­mal, Lo­gan said.

The De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion waived a $250,000 fine as long as the city and the con­trac­tor carry out a pol­lu­tion pre­ven­tion plan. The de­tails of that plan have not been fi­nal­ized, Lo­gan said, but al­ready work­ers have cleared veg­e­ta­tion from the banks of the lake. Lo­gan said the con­trac­tor will do that work for free.

“It’s not an in­signif­i­cant amount of water” that spilled, Niles said. “It broke all of our hearts, re­ally.”

•••

Three other spills were also caused by con­trac­tors.

On Oct. 14, about 21,000 gal­lons of waste­water poured from a pipe at the south­west plant af­ter an in­flat­able plug meant to seal the pipe de­flated. The water flowed into a con­struc­tion pit and was pumped back into the plant for re­treat­ment. None of the water left the prop­erty, ac­cord­ing to the city’s re­port to the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

On Oct. 15, about 2,000 gal­lons leaked af­ter a con­trac­tor punc­tured a pipe while dig­ging near an in­jec­tion well at the south­west plant. Most of that per­co­lated into the ground, but about 500 gal­lons made it to the street and into the stormwa­ter sys­tem.

On Nov. 23, about 10,000 gal­lons leaked at the south­west plant af­ter a high-pres­sure pump blew off a pipe from a tank.

Call it the “grow­ing pains” of try­ing to fix so many prob­lems at once af­ter the cri­sis came to a head a few years ago, Niles said.

“We have a lot of ac­tive projects go­ing on side by side,” he said. “We have con­trac­tors step­ping over con­trac­tors.”

There were two more spills that weren’t caused by con­trac­tors. On Oct. 13, a 4-inch wide re­claimed water pipe sprang a leak along Har­ris­burg Street in Shore Acres, spilling about 3,000 gal­lons.

And the most re­cent spill, which sent 226,000 gal­lons of waste­water into a pond at the north­east fa­cil­ity on 62nd Av­enue NE, was caused by a city em­ployee who left the ma­chin­ery in main­tainence mode. A tank, which un­der nor­mal oper­a­tions feeds the re­claimed water dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem or the in­jec­tion wells, was pre­vented from drain­ing and it over­flowed.

Work­ers pumped the pond water back through the plant.

•••

Since the city’s sewage cri­sis, of­fi­cials have con­sis­tently promised to go above and be­yond what’s re­quired by state law when it comes to re­port­ing spills to the pub­lic.

Now they’re walk­ing back that com­mit­ment.

State law re­quires cities and busi­nesses that spill waste­water and chem­i­cals to re­port it to the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion, which posts those in­ci­dents on a pub­lic web­site. The city had been tak­ing the ex­tra step of also post­ing no­tices af­ter all its spills on its own web­site and through its so­cial me­dia chan­nels.

But city of­fi­cials did not pub­lish no­ti­fi­ca­tions af­ter two of the lat­est in­ci­dents — the 21,000 gal­lon Oct. 14 spill and the 10,000 gal­lon Nov. 23 spill. The rea­son, Lo­gan said, is that both were con­tained to recla­ma­tion fa­cil­ity prop­erty.

In fact, Lo­gan said, as of about two months ago, that’s the new stan­dard for re­port­ing spills.

“If it does have any im­pact on our cit­i­zens, we cer­tainly let them know,” he said. “But if it does re­main on our treat­ment plant, then there’s no rea­son to alert cit­i­zens.… Be­cause there’s no need to no­tify things that don’t re­ally af­fect some­one.”

Why not con­tinue to re­port ev­ery­thing?

“In do­ing that, we cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where ev­ery­thing, even a diminu­tive spill, got the no­ti­fi­ca­tion,” he said, “and we didn’t want to be the boy that cried wolf.”

And, he added: “There’s no sense mak­ing bul­lets for peo­ple to shoot at us.”

BRONTE WITTPENN | Times

The lake at St. Peters­burg’s Wal­ter Fuller Park was con­tam­i­nated by up to 1.7 mil­lion gal­lons of waste­water from a 50-day spill at the North­west Water Recla­ma­tion Fa­cil­ity, top. City of­fi­cials put up signs around the lake warn­ing of con­tam­i­na­tion.

BRONTE WITTPENN | Times

For 50 days, water that was sup­posed to re­main in the North­west Water Recla­ma­tion fa­cil­ity for treat­ment was drained into this lake in Wal­ter Fuller Park in the Jun­gle Ter­race area of St. Pete.

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