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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

State investigation reveals contradictions in St. Petersburg sewage dumps



A state investigation found that St. Petersburg made no attempt to warn the public of a 1.1 million gallon sewage dump from the Albert Whitted wastewater plant in early August.

The inquiry, released Wednesday to the Times, also turned up contradictions between the city's version of the spill and the subsequent state investigation.

When the Tampa Bay Times first reported the dump on Aug. 10, city officials initially said the sewage had been treated and posed no threat to people.

But when  Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigator, Darryl Garman, contacted the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, waterfront director Shawn Macking told him that on Aug. 10 a "city of St. Petersburg employee" had called him to ask if any students had been in the water.

Macking told the caller that about 50 children in the Yacht Club's summer sailing program had been in the water that morning, a short distance north on the waterfront from the sewage plant.

The unnamed official told Macking to have the children "take an extra hot shower for decontamination from the discharge."

That call, nor the identity of the caller, was ever disclosed to the public in the months of intense interest in the city's beleagured sewage system since weeks of heavy rain exposed its flaws this summer.

Nor was the story of a commercial diver that had been in the water that morning repairing and cleaning boats in the yacht basin. Sam Secord told the investigator that he noticed the water was discolored, but chose to dive anyway. That evening, Secord experienced flu-like symptoms with an elevated temparature. He said he couldn't be sure his illness was connected to the quality of the water, according to the report.

"I was unable to find any indication that the City of St. Petersburg took any pro-active notifications to the general public regarding the discharges," Garman wrote.

The next day, city officials backtracked, telling the Times that the sewage had been "essentially untreated" undergoing about 1/4 of its normal cleaning procedures, according to Steve Leavitt, the city's water resources director.

Subsequent water samples taken by the city and forwarded to the state Department of Environmental Protection by Garman showed "moderate" contamination but posed no significant threat to humans or aquatic life. The levels of pollution in the water wouldn't require posting notifications at a swimming area, DEP officials told Garman.

But because the dumping had occurred during a state of emergency declared by Gov. Rick Scott and no one could be found who had been harmed by the discharge, Garman said he found no violations and closed the investigation. 

The contradiction in the city's original version of the events of Aug. 10 aren't the only questions raised by the report. The city's communication director initially denied knowledge of the wildlife commission's investigation last week even though he had spoken with Garman in August.

When contacted by the Times about the wildlife commission's investigation on Friday, Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman Ben Kirby said at first that he knew nothing about any investigation.

But Garman's report states that his first contact with the city was Kirby on Aug. 24, four days after he opened the case. Garman asked for e-mails and documents related to the event to establish a time line. Kirby said he would reseach the issue and provide documents later that week, according to the report.

"The way it was framed I thought it was a new investigation," Kirby said. 

Chief of Staff Kevin King said the city wouldn't comment on a report it hadn't received yet.







[Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 4:19pm]


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