St. Pete debates what to do about aging pipes

As St. Petersburg political leaders continued to stew over the challenges of aging infrastructure Wednesday afternoon, wastewater maintenance crews showed FOX 13 some of the tools of their trade. 

They shut down 31st Street South briefly and forced pressured smoke into a sewer system manhole. It spewed out of an unopened manhole a block away. 

"That let's us know we have what's called a bad ring" Terrell Holmes said. "That's the part of the manhole that holds the cover, that we put the cover on top of. So eventually we're going to wind up replacing that."

Maintenance technician Alex Terletsky explained another tool: A wheel-borne camera that crawls through the pipes. 

"We actually can steer this thing like a tank, where the wheels move in opposite directions" Terletsky said. "That's if we have to steer through something." 

He also showed video taken earlier this week that gives an inside look at a sewer line. 

"This is infiltration" he pointed out during the video. "That's a fractured and broken pipe, and we're actually having groundwater dripping in."

The manhole and the broken pipe both allow unwanted water into the sewer system, increasing the problem for system overflows in heavy rain events. 

Whether by smoke testing or camera, the deficiencies are documented and the field crews move on. 

"We don't make the call on what gets repaired, we just push all of the information to the people that do make those decisions" Terletsky said.

Ultimately how fast repairs are made is a matter of money, and in St. Petersburg, it has ignited a vigorous debate between the mayor and the city council. 

Like other Bay-area cities, St. Petersburg's infrastructure is showing its age, with plumbing that can date back to the 1930's and 1940's in some places. 

Mayor Rick Kriseman recently presented a list of projects that could be funded by a $6.5 million settlement from the BP oil spill. The next day, the city council put a hold on the mayor's request, pending a study of the city's sewer systems. There are separate systems for wastewater and stormwater.

Councilman Karl Nurse raised the issue more than a month ago, and repeated his concern at a city council workshop. 

"We are rehabbing at a rate where the total system is getting worse, and that's why the overflow is so dangerous" Nurse said. 

Council chairman Charlie Gerdes also favors increasing spending on sewer upgrades. 

"Climate change is real, sea level rise is coming, there's a whole bunch of other reasons that we need to gird our loins in our sewer systems" Gerdes told Kriseman.

The mayor tried to defend the once-only BP money from being thrown at what may be a $300 million problem.

"You have to look for that balance of building to what your needs are, building for what you anticipate could happen," Kriseman said. 

In the meantime, the maintenance crews will continue their routine inspections, identifying issues for others to prioritize.