ST. PETERSBURG — For more than a week, Mayor Rick Kriseman insisted that 58 million gallons of sewage that spilled into west St. Petersburg neighborhoods was essentially the same thing residents sprinkle on their lawns: reclaimed water.
The mayor said it wasn't sewage. He said it was clean.
On Friday, Kriseman said he was wrong.
The mayor told the Tampa Bay Times late Friday that a 58 million-gallon sewage spill from the city's Northwest wastewater treatment plant earlier this month was dirtier than he had previously thought.
The city had just sent the state Department of Environmental Protection an amended report on the spill, changing its classification from "treated effluent," or completely treated sewage, to "partially treated" wastewater.
When the Times first reported the Northwest spill on Sept. 12, which officials hadn't even told City Council members about, the mayor was adamant that the overflow wasn't sewage at all. It was clean, he said. He held that position until Friday, when he modified it to say, although he still believes the bacteria counts were equivalent to reclaimed water, the sewage wasn't as clean as he first thought.
Bottom line, Kriseman said, "It was not clean, it was not reclaimed, but it wouldn't have made people sick."
Last week, Craven Askew, a wastewater official who blew the whistle on previously hidden aspects of the city's sewage crisis, revealed that testing showed high levels of turbidity —or cloudiness — in the wastewater that flowed into Walter Fuller Park and Azalea neighborhood. The sewage also, at points, had low levels of chlorine, which is used to kill dangerous bacteria.
The mayor blamed the mistake on a policy put into place by Steve Leavitt, the Water Resources director the mayor placed on unpaid leave this week.
That policy had a wastewater reclamation specialist fill out a discharge report to the state. "No disrespect to her, but she's essentially a clerk,'' Kriseman said, not a plant operator who runs the facility.
"That policy, frankly, is crazy," Kriseman said. "And I'm changing it today."
Leavitt was replaced after Askew made a series of revelations showing that top city officials should have known the city would suffer sewage overflows if it closed the Albert Whitted plant on the waterfront. That plant was closed anyway last year. Months later, the first of three major storms overwhelmed sewers. Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine increased the totals dramatically. All told, nearly 200 million gallons of untreated and partly treated sewage have been spilled or dumped by the city into local waterways and watershed.
Kriseman said the operations specialist decided to classify what spilled out of the Northwest plant in early September as treated effluent, even though the plant operator, Sylvia Rosario, had recommended it be classified as partly treated.
From now on, plant operators will fill out the notification forms, Kriseman said.
Leavitt's replacement, John Palenchar, said he is revising the city's emergency response plan for overflows and will include written language requiring plant operators to fill out the notification forms.
The previous plan was old and rarely used, he said. Instead, an informal system had sprung up on how to deal with emergencies. He said having the operations specialist fill out the forms was such an informal, unwritten policy.
Kriseman said his earlier statements that the wastewater that coursed across 22nd Avenue N next to Azalea Middle School was essentially reclaimed water remained true only in the bacteria counts.
"Otherwise, no, it was not reclaimed," he said. "Obviously, my notification and communication would be different than they were on that day."
City Council member Charlie Gerdes praised the mayor for his new approach. Aside from putting out warning signs, the city hadn't notified anyone but the state about the spill until five days after it ended on Sept. 7.
This time, Kriseman called the Times to inform the public about the miscue, Gerdes said. "That, to me, means he's taking it seriously.
But parsing the details of how clean the sewage was that spilled in his district doesn't interest him, Gerdes said.
"I'm really am not dwelling on the specifics and details,'' he said. "If something comes out of a treatment plant that's not supposed to come out, I don't care if it's 99 percent clean. It's not supposed to come out."