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Uncertain future for St. Petersburg's sewage plant next to Albert Whitted

When the city pumped more than 16 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays this month, it thrust a coveted piece of waterfront property back into the public eye.

Nestled next to Albert Whitted Airport is the city's oldest sewage treatment plant, closed since April. The decision to shutter the plant, made several years ago, was triggered by a state regulatory change that made the plant obsolete.

Now, the plant is a crucial backstop for an overstressed sewer system. But the decision to partially reopen it has raised questions about how and when to redevelop the property, including a study to assess the site's suitability as a fish farm.

A big part of the decision to close the Albert Whitted treatment plant was financial: a 2010 study found that shutting it down would save money — $32 million over 20 years.

City officials promised council members that the sewage treated at Albert Whitted could be diverted to the city's Southwest wastewater plant without any trouble.

But that proved false when nearly 15 inches of rain fell on the city between mid July and early August, drowning aging sewer pipes in water.

Wastewater officials scrambled to reopen Albert Whitted to prevent the release of untreated sewage in the streets or another massive discharge into Clam Bayou, which had already absorbed 15.4 million gallons of raw sewage. Days later, another 1.1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater spilled into Tampa Bay.

Keeping the Albert Whitted plant open wouldn't have prevented the emergency dumpings, but it might have reduced their size, city officials have said.