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USF researcher examines potential consequences of sewage dump in Tampa Bay

After Hurricane Hermine, hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage entered Tampa Bay. The exact effects the sewage will have on life in and around the bay remains to be seen. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater were released into Tampa Bay for 10 days following Hurricane Hermine, causing researchers to look into its effect on the Bay.

USF researcher Suzanne Young is unsure of the exact consequences that a sewage dump of this scale will have on both human and aquatic life in the bay area, but she knows the current situation is not a good one.

“Anything you can find in raw sewage, including viruses and chemicals and all of the fecal-associated pathogens, those all pose a risk to people,” she said.

However, Young clarified that the hydrology of the area will lessen the effects of the untreated sewage. 

“(Tampa Bay) is a huge body of water and the Gulf (of Mexico) is a huge body of water, so a lot of the health risk is kind of being over-exaggerated because of how much mixing happens,” she said. “The spread of (pathogens) is kind of affected by the hydrology, or the geography of what the water bodies are, and what kind of mixing there is.”

Young credits the country’s high standards of sanitation for keeping most health risks at bay.

“So far, we’ve been lucky in Tampa that there haven’t been (any) bad outbreaks of waterborne disease, and I think the actual volumes of untreated waste are low enough that it’s not as big of a public health disaster as it’s currently being viewed,” she said.

According to a Tampa Bay Times article, wastewater officials estimate that the dumping that occurred during Hurricane Hermine was only 10 percent raw sewage; less concentrated than previous estimates. 

“(The city) did the best they could with treating as much as they could,” Young said. “So that was another under-reported thing was the level of treatment that most of this wastewater/sewage received. I think the city didn’t know how much of it had been treated, so they were still gathering that information.”

But Young said the tainted water will have negative effects on marine life.

“(A sewage spill) can really upset the balance of food webs and just how sensitive aquatic animals are to those kinds of extreme changes,” she said.

Young said the issue of sewage dumping is not only important to city officials and fishermen. Students can learn from this problem too.

“It’s a good opportunity (for students) to get involved in local politics because these are all measures that are partially related to what the city council does, and your local government offices … have an impact as to where tax money goes,” she said.

Young explained that each person’s water use adds to the water flowing through the treatment plants. She suggested that people avoid doing laundry or running the dishwasher when it is raining to help the city avoid unnecessary dumping.

“The rain water, the storm water overflow, the sewage, all of it’s going to the wastewater treatment plant and adding to that volume so when they reach that max volume, that’s when they have to start just dumping (untreated waste),” she said.

According to Young, it doesn’t help that Tampa Bay’s sewer system is “old and leaky.” 

In 2015, the city closed down the Albert Whitted treatment plant — St. Petersburg’s oldest sewage treatment plant — that had a capacity of 12.5 million gallons. Officials told the Times that this worsened the overflow problem during Hurricane Hermine.

The Times also reported that the St. Petersburg City Council recently approved a budget with $58 million designated to update the City’s sewer system.

“I think (the sewage dumping) is going to keep happening because it’s too big of a problem right now, as far as our infrastructure and capacity,” Young said. “So I think they’re working on building and preparing infrastructure for the future.”

Young said that being educated about environmental issues is a good first step in solving problems like this one.

“I think people at least are paying attention now, and the Tampa Bay-area governments are aware of that and are kind of taking a lot of heat,” she said.

“Our population is growing, we’re creating more waste, and we have to figure out sustainable ways to treat our waste,” she said. “(We should learn) how to recycle waste or use different methods to treat waste, figure out how to reduce the storm water flow that’s going into the plants so that they don’t overflow.”