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Diver sues city of St. Petersburg over sewage spills, hearing loss

He was working as a boat captain and diver, cleaning the bottoms of boats in Boca Ciega Bay, during the spills. The lawsuit seeks damages and to pay his past and future medical bills.
In 2016, signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park warn people to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Aug. 14, 2018
Updated Aug. 14, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG —A certified diver and boat captain is suing the city, alleging that the 2015 sewage spills — and lack of proper notification — caused him to suffer a hearing loss from the bacteria he was exposed to while unknowingly diving in contaminated waters.

Kyle Fortney, a former Pinellas County resident who now lives in Key West, said in the lawsuit that the city "repeatedly, regularly, willfully and negligently discharged vast quantities of raw sewage wastewater that was harmful to human health and the environment."

FROM 2015: State report finds no public warnings, or violations, in St. Petersburg sewage spill

Fortney is believed to be the first individual to sue St. Petersburg over the 2105-16 sewage spills. He filed his suit Aug. 3 in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and is seeking payment for past and future medical expenses, damages and attorney fees.

The city discharged up to 1 billion gallons of wastewater from 2015-16 during the well-documented sewage crisis. While most of it was pumped underwater, up 200 million gallons was dumped into local waterways, including Tampa Bay.

The crisis started when more than 31 million gallons of essentially untreated sewage were pumped into Tampa Bay in August 2015, the lawsuit said. More spills followed.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

Fortney was working as a boat captain and diver, cleaning the bottoms of boats in Boca Ciega Bay, during the spills, the lawsuit said.

In mid September 2015, Fortney began experiencing pain and discomfort in his left ear. Repeated medical visits diagnosed Fortney with an infection caused by E. coli. That infection lead to multiple surgeries, hearing loss, vertigo and nausea, according to the suit.

Fortney says he continues to experience an ongoing "brown and malodorous drainage" from his ear.

Attorney Dominick Graziano said Fortney decided to file the lawsuit after recognizing the severity of his injuries and realizing he will likely have to deal with the effects for the rest of his life.

"Frankly, it's completely altered his life," Graziano said. "He won't be able to do the things he's enjoyed all his life like diving and boating … He has problems with his balance, he's in pain almost constantly, his hearing loss is significant."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Rick Kriseman's administration lashed in St. Pete sewage report

The city does not comment on pending litigation, said Kevin King, chief of policy and public engagement. However, King did note that the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the city failed to notify the public about the spills or disclose that the water in Boca Ciega Bay and Clam Bayou had become infected with bacteria such as E. coli.

"Fortney detrimentally relied on the misinformation and continued to work as a diver in and around Boca Ciega Bay, cleaning the bottom of boats and other related underwater tasks, during which he came into contact with waste water and raw sewage and developed a life altering ear infection," the lawsuit said.

Graziano believes the city's failure to inform the public about the spells is well document. Had Fortney known of the spills, the attorney said, he wouldn't have been in the water and exposed himself to the risk of bacteria.

Fortney isn't the first diver to say the spills made him sick. Sam Secord, a commercial diver, spent hours in the water at the yacht basin a day after the August 2015 spills, according to a state investigative report.

Secord, owner of Bayside Marine, told investigators that the water quality was the worst he had ever seen. He said it was yellow and he could see only a few feet.

That night he came down with a fever and battled what felt like the flu.

"I definitely think it was related," said Secord, who did not seek medical attention.

Previous coverage: State report finds no public warnings, or violations, in St. Petersburg sewage spill (October 2015)

The city has spent the past two years trying to put the fallout from the sewage crisis behind it. In 2017, City Council approved a consent order with the state pledging to spend $326 million to improve the sewage system that failed so spectacularly.

The state also decided not to file criminal charges against any city employees.

Council member Steve Kornell, who wants more public involvement in the responses to the sewage crisis, has organized a "community conversation" for tonight at 7 p.m. at the St. Petersburg College All State Center.

The goal, Kornell said, is to go over how the sewage spills happened and what's being done to fix it, and then discuss how the community can actively ensure the problem is solved.

"Protecting our coastal environment requires the City to make a long term commitment to maintaining its sewer system," Kornell said.


Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

St. Pete sewer plant operator seeks whistleblower protections, saying city knew it shouldn't shutter Albert Whitted plant (Sept. 16, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fires one official, demotes another over sewage mess (Dec. 21, 2016) (Dec. 20, 2016)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)