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

Published Oct. 8, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The warning came five hours after 50 children had finished their mid August sailing lesson at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

A city employee called the club's waterfront director and said the students should "take an extra hot shower for decontamination from the discharge."

That lone phone call, which came hours after the city pumped 1.1 million gallons of essentially untreated sewage into Tampa Bay, was the only known alert the city issued regarding the spill, according to a state investigative report obtained Wednesday by the Tampa Bay Times.

The caller, who wasn't identified in the report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, warned about an Aug. 10 spill. The city had discharged wastewater about a mile south from the yacht club and about 10 hours before the students took their sailing lessons.

The city notified the state of the discharge shortly after midnight on Aug. 10. But it never issued a public alert.

"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," wrote the agency's investigator, Darryl Garman.

Garman looked at only that spill. But the city discharged another 30 million gallons of untreated, partially treated or unfiltered sewage at Clam Bayou and Eckerd College's campus in the first 10 days of August during heavy rains. Eckerd officials, environmentalists, and some City Council members have criticized the city for not notifying the public of those spills in a timely manner.

The report on the Aug. 10 spill found no violations because the discharges happened after Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and no one could be located who had been harmed by the "moderate" levels of contamination in the water.

But the report includes an interview with Sam Secord, a commercial diver who spent hours in the water at the yacht basin a day after the Aug. 10 sewage spill. 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.

Initially, city officials told the Times that the sewage had been treated and posed no threat.

That wasn't the message the unnamed city employee delivered to the Yacht Club. The club official who spoke with the city employee didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Secord, the diver, said the city should have alerted the marina and warned divers and others.

"They could have at least posted something in the marina office to say, 'Dive at your own risk,' " said Secord, 30.

Mayor Rick Kriseman was in Albuquerque on Wednesday at a conference, but chief of staff Kevin King said it would be difficult to identify the employee who called the Yacht Club. He said the remark about "hot showers" sounded off-the-cuff.

King said the city hadn't received the report yet.

The report contradicted Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby. When first contacted last week by a Times reporter, Kirby said he knew nothing about an investigation by the wildlife commission.

But Garman, the investigator, said the first person with the city whom he contacted was Kirby, on Aug. 24, four days after he opened the case.

When told this Wednesday, Kirby said he thought the Times was asking last week about a new investigation. He said it didn't occur to him to mention the wildlife commission investigation that he knew about.

Lauren Hallahan, 56, a campaign official for former mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford and a frequent critic of the Kriseman administration, said the shifting responses from City Hall haven't given her any comfort.

"It keeps changing every week," she said. "I can't keep track of all the lies."

Hallahan of Clearwater said she asked for the investigation because she wanted assurances that it was safe to go in the water.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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