1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg can't get its story straight on sewers

Published Apr. 30, 2018

Every time St. Petersburg city officials try to rebuild a modicum of trust with residents over problems with the sewer system, they take a sledgehammer to their own efforts. The latest example: The water department commissioned an independent report to find the cause of a reclaimed water spill — and now disputes that report. The report said the treated wastewater probably reached Tampa Bay, the city insists it didn't and, as usual, residents are expected to believe the rosier version.

On Jan. 18, about 266,000 gallons of reclaimed water leaked from the Northeast sewage plant. At the time, officials said contractors working at the plant did not adequately communicate with plant operators and a bolt was left loose, causing an initial leak. Then a sensor froze — the temperature hit 32 degrees that day, registering a low level in a storage tank and allowing more water in than could be pumped out. From the get-go, city officials did not have their stories straight.

Public works spokesman Bill Logan first told the Times that the water flowed into a retention pond on the plant property and "did not go any further than the pond." Later, he clarified that the pond leads into Smacks Bayou, which leads to Tampa Bay and said "there is no way to know how much of that fully-treated reclaimed-quality water — if any — went into the waters leading into the bay." The plant's chief operator wrote in an initial report that some of the water probably reached a pond that feeds into the bay. But his supervisors deleted that line, and Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley told the City Council that there was no evidence suggesting any of the water left the site. That makes two conflicting accounts.

Here's the third: Tankersley also told the council that a staff member had been appointed to do an independent report to improve internal quality control. That report, under the heading "damage caused," concluded that the "long-term effects of discharge into waterway are still to be determined, due to the high probability of flowing out into the estuary, subsequently leading into Tampa Bay." It's dated Feb. 1, but the city calls it a draft that was not finalized by staff. Logan says the information Tankersley told the council is more complete, and it confirms that no reclaimed water escaped into the bay. Even if that's the case, there's little reason to believe in the integrity of an independent investigation if city staffers are at liberty to alter the findings and conclusions.

Evolving stories have been a hallmark of this ongoing sewage crisis. In September 2016, the Northwest treatment plant experienced a spill of 58 million gallons that streamed through west St. Petersburg neighborhoods. The city didn't initially inform residents, and Mayor Rick Kriseman claimed the water was essentially reclaimed water — clean enough to use for lawn watering. It turned out the water wasn't that clean; it was partly treated wastewater. Now in year three of this mess, Kriseman's administration is still bungling the message.

Another rainy season is right around the corner, and St. Petersburg has done substantial work upgrading treatment plants and expanding capacity and lining leaky pipes. But another spill or discharge is always a possibility within the aging sewer system. The city has used up any benefit of the doubt for telling the clear and unvarnished truth about further problems, and residents should expect better.