EDITORIAL: It’s time to prioritize cleaning up the bay

Tampa Bay where 172 million gallons of sewage was dumped. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Tampa Bay is no longer a picturesque marina thanks to the 172 million gallons of partially treated sewage released into the waterways following Hurricane Hermine.

St. Petersburg dumped 70 million gallons, Pasco County spilled 36.8 million and Clearwater leaked 31.7 million into the once-uncontaminated bay.

The question on everyone’s’ mind, outside of how on earth we allowed this to happen, is “What do city officials plan to do to remedy the repulsive mistake?”

Despite the contamination, St. Petersburg opened its beaches Tuesday after the results from two days of bacteria testing showed levels within healthy limits.

However, the repercussions of the massive waste dump are far from over. In St. Petersburg, 45 carcasses of juvenile seabirds called Black Skimmers have been found, leading volunteers to suspect the sewage as the cause, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Black Skimmers are a species of special concern in Florida and state officials have been debating increasing the protection level to “threatened.” This recent outbreak of deaths among the species may very well be the push needed to raise their protection level.

Salmonella, Red Tide or even a virus are the assumed cause of death, Elizabeth Forys, a professor of environmental science and biology at Eckerd College told the Tampa Bay Times.

“This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this in Florida,” Forys said.

Tourists at the Dali Museum claim the pungent smell permeated the area every time the wind blew, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

“It punched us right in the face,” James Noreto from South Pasadena told the Tampa Bay Times. “It smelled like the circus. You could tell right away.”

The massive amount of sewage was dumped due to a combination of heavy rains in August as well as Hurricane Hermine. Officials are taking as many steps as possible to prepare for another storm causing similar problems, but they’ve now run out of time.

Tropical Storm Julia hit the Gulf Coast Wednesday after forming over Georgia. Residents are waiting to see if the waterways will be further polluted. 

On top of the already disturbing news that large amounts of fecal matter now inhabit the bay, a USF researcher found preliminary signs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria at two St. Petersburg beaches last week. 

Yet, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin told the Tampa Bay Times the city hasn’t contacted USF yet to find out more about the bacteria, proving just how seriously some officials are taking the issue. 

Pinellas County Commissioner, Charlie Justice, is advising the establishment of a countywide sewer task force to assess its part in the sewage crisis due to its utilities dumping 134.4 gallons of waste. 

“I believe that this collective task force could facilitate more beneficial outcomes through greater collaboration, closer communication and mutual support when needed, as well as enabling all task force partners to better solve the key wastewater system issues we face: capacity and inflow/infiltration,” wrote Justice in a memo Tuesday.

The St. Petersburg City Council, along with Mayor Rick Krisman, wants to have $58 million set aside in the next year’s budget in order to do necessary repairs and upgrades to the aging sewer system, which has struggled for years to handle heavy rainfall.

Sadly, though, waiting until next year may be too late. If the level of sewage in the Bay is not treated, tourists will be more hesitant to come to beaches they are apprehensive to swim in. 

If researchers determine the sudden death of the Black Skimmers was in fact the sewage polluting the water, other wildlife might find themselves at risk and many fishermen have already sworn off fishing in the area. 

“This is like the best spot,” said Dan Carpenter a 24-year-old fisherman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But this changes the game completely … We should probably move.”

Will the beaches be truly safe for students and tourists? Will wildlife face the brunt of the carelessness of the sewage plants? 

It seems the answer most of our politicians have adopted is to simply wait and see.