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Minor St. Petersburg sewage spill causes major headaches

By Charlie Frago
Two days after Mayor Rick Kriseman stood in front of a line of television cameras to tout the improvements at the Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College, the plant experienced a sewage overflow. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than a day after Mayor Rick Kriseman stood in front of a line of television cameras to tout the improvements at the Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College, sewage spilled out of that very same plant.

Although the 50,000 gallon spill is small by recent summer standards, it has once again thrust the city's sewage crisis to the forefront of a bruising mayoral race.

The Aug. 29 primary pitting incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman against former Mayor Rick Baker is just six weeks away. Kriseman's handling of the sewage crisis has been the preferred cudgel wielded by Baker.

SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

The "mostly-treated" sewage was released Wednesday night at the plant after heavy rains. Half of a chlorine contact basin — which kills harmful bacteria in sewage— was out of service because of the massive construction going on at the plant, city officials said.

"That's the exact reason it happened," Kriseman said. "If the rain had happened the night before there wouldn't have been an issue because the chamber was fully online."

The Baker campaign issued a statement about the latest spill:

"Hopefully, Rick Kriseman will now abandon his normal reaction to crisis, which is to immediately deny responsibility and blame others. It is past time for him to develop an honest cost and timeline for the reopening of the Albert Whitted Plant — a facility that he closed in April of 2015."

The Kriseman administration did close Albert Whitted, but it was carrying out a decision made by the City Council in 2011.

This latest mess started Tuesday, when Kriseman held a news conference at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility to declare sewage improvements were ahead of schedule.

Then two inches of rain fell in one hour on Wednesday, more than doubling normal sewage flows into the plant. The spill took place at 8:40 p.m. and was reported to the state.

Initially Thursday, Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley and his spokesman Bill Logan said the sewage was "fully contained" in a retention pond on the plant's property.

Later that day, Tankersley said the sewage —equivalent to two swimming pools — had soaked into the ground around the contact basin.

"It's a fluid situation," Logan said. "That's why we usually have 24 hours to report this."

Disclosing sewage spills became an issue during the 2015-16 sewage crisis, which saw the city's ancient and overburdened sewage system released up to 200 million gallons of waste over 18 months.

Logan said the Southwest plant operator sent out an email about the spill around 11 p.m. Wednesday, but he didn't see it because he was already asleep. He said he found the email when he checked his phone around 6:15 a.m. Thursday. Logan then notified the Tampa Bay Times, which had asked if the recent rains had led to any spills.

"Residents would have been notified immediately if anything went further than the lines of the plant," Logan said.

Residents learned of the spill when the city alerted the media around 8:30 a.m. After last year's spills, Tankersley told the City Council members that the public would be immediately notified of any future spills.

But at Thursday's council meeting, he said it was a mistake to send out a report to the public before officials fully understood what had happened.

"If I had to go back and do this again I would not have sent out the report at 11:16 at night in an email," he told the council. "We jumped the gun."

"I thought bringing on a communications director was going to help us avoid these missteps," Council chair Amy Foster said. "We have to keep our story straight and not switch back and forth. We have to work really hard to be as transparent as possible so the public trusts us."

Added Council member Darden Rice: "It just makes the accident that much more unfortunate because it was a manageable amount. I think the damage is more to our credibility."

Tankersely also vowed that from now on, his department would monitor weather events 48 hours in advance to prepare for construction areas for excess water flows.

St. Petersburg wasn't the only city to experience sewage spills in Pinellas County last night. A lightning strike at a lift station in Largo led to about 30,000 gallons of sewage being spilled, according to state records.

"You hate to see any spills," said Kriseman. "But we're doing we are doing exactly what we said we're going to do, doing the work necessary to enhance our system and be better prepared for moving forward.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]