ST. PETERSBURG — The city said not one of the 266,000 gallons of reclaimed water released on Jan. 18 reached Tampa Bay.
There was no mention of the waste released from the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility ever reaching the bay in the city's notice of the discharge to residents, or the notification sent to state environmental officers.
And that assurance was repeatedly made by city officials, first weeks later to the City Council, and then to the Tampa Bay Times.
That's still the city's official story. Yet officials also have in their possession a report that reached a different conclusion: there is a "high probability" spilled waste flowed into Tampa Bay.
Why does the city's public pronouncements differ from its internal records? That disconnect is reminiscent of the 2015-16 sewage crisis, in which the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman was criticized for not being forthcoming as its ailing sewage system released up to a billion gallons of waste — 200 million gallons of which ended up in the bay.
Public works officials, though, say there is no disconnect. The "high probability" finding was made in an after-action report that was the first of its kind, they said, drafted to establish a procedure for documenting spills.
But the report itself? It did not accurately explain the discharge, they said.
Water Resources Director John Palenchar called that report "the first crack at capturing the after-action reporting process or methodology." Even now, he said, that report remains a draft. It has still not yet been finalized.
"This draft was not really generated to go into depth in the content," he said. "This was not a report that was going to be finalized and completely gone through and vetted."
• • •
The Jan. 18 discharges at the Northeast plant took place at about 5 a.m. Officials said it was repaired within 21 minutes.
The St. Petersburg Public Works Department sent out a tweet reporting the release of reclaimed water at 4:07 p.m.
While reclaimed water is safe to use on lawns, state law prohibits releasing it into surface waters because its been treated with chemicals harmful to marine life: ammonia, chlorine, phosphorus and nitrate.
The day of the spill, the Northeast plant's chief operator Craven Askew wrote a report to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He wrote that the reclaimed water likely reached a pond that "leads into Tampa Bay."
But his superiors removed that line from the report he filed on Jan. 18.
Two days later, public works spokesman Bill Logan told the Times "there is no way to know" how much, if any, reclaimed water reached the bay.
Why was the line removed? Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley recently said his staff excised it because they were sure the reclaimed water didn't reach the bay.
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Tankersley attended the Feb. 1 City Council meeting and explained how the Northeast spill happened two weeks earlier:
The city stores reclaimed water in large tanks on the property. The tanks send reclaimed water into a well, from which the city either pumps the water into the reclaimed water system for consumer use, or deep into the Florida Aquifer. A sensor monitors the water level in the well, and when the water gets too high, it reduces the flow of water from the storage tanks into the well.
The problem, Tankersley said, was the sensor froze on Jan. 18. The low temperature that day in St. Petersburg was 32 degrees, according to accuweather.com. The system registered a low water level in the well and sent in more reclaimed water from the tanks than it could pump out of the well, causing water to spill over.
The sensor malfunction was exacerbated by construction on the property, which limited the pump's output.
Tankersley told council members about 166,000 gallons of the spilled water percolated into the ground. The remaining 100,000 gallons entered a ditch that carried it to a retention pond on the property.
"We have nothing to suggest that that water left the site nor left the stormwater system," Tankersley told the council as he walked them through a Powerpoint presentation. "All the data, all the observations, suggest that all the water that was spilled either soaked into the ground on site or entered the onsite stormwater system and did not leave the stormwater system."
In the wake of the spill, Tankersley told council members that city workers tested waterways leading to Smacks Bayou, about 1.4 miles from the plant, and those samples were not contaminated with reclaimed water.
He also said he'd improve the "post-spill after-action report" by appointing an "independent, dedicated staff member to act as internal performance quality control."
• • •
The person tapped to lead the independent investigation into the Jan. 18 spill was Bryan King, a safety and training officer within the Water Resources Department. The report he drafted was dated Feb. 1 — the same day Tankersley appeared before council.
In the 3-page report, King wrote that he drafted it using information he gleaned from emails, interviews, data from the pump's computer system, surveillance footage and the city's public notices of the spill.
Under the header "Damage Caused," King wrote that spilled reclaimed water probably reached the bay. The spill caused minimal damage to the property, he wrote, but the "long term effects of discharge into waterway are still being determined, due to the high probability of flowing out into the estuary, subsequently leading to Tampa Bay."
King emailed that report to Palenchar on March 7. King declined to comment for this story.
But officials said King's conclusion that the Jan. 18 spill likely reached the bay is not the final say on the matter. Palenchar and Logan both stressed that the report is incomplete.
"This is a working document," Palenchar said. "To say this is an independent report is a little bit premature when we haven't even (settled on) the structure and developed the process yet."
Logan added that King's report "has not been finalized or even vetted."
But by revising King's report into the Jan. 18 spill, wouldn't the city be compromising an independent report?
What happened to relying on an "independent" city worker, as Tankersley told council on Feb. 1, "to act as internal performance quality control?"
Palenchar said the purpose of the after-action report was not to determine where the reclaimed water discharge ended up. Instead, he said the purpose of the report was to prevent such a release from happening again. He said the report King wrote was a test run to figure out how to produce future reports.
"It looks like a very official report," Palenchar said of King's draft report. "So I do see your perspective. But it looks very different from where I'm sitting."
He added: "This, to me, is an effort to be more responsive and hold ourselves more accountable. To have a draft working document that we're using to try to hold ourselves more accountable, used to somehow make us look like we're being less accountable … that saddens me deeply."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.