1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg needs more openness about bay discharges

With St. Petersburg in the midst of another massive dump of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, Mayor Rick Kriseman took to Facebook to defend the discharges and pledge major upgrades to the city's inadequate sewer system. "We can't change the past, but we can get the future right," he wrote this week. That will take more candor from city officials to build the public trust required to pay for such a substantial investment.

As of Wednesday afternoon, St. Petersburg was still discharging partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay. Kriseman and public works officials would not estimate how many millions of gallons have been dumped so far, what they expect to be the eventual total or when the discharge will end. Even more frustrating is that the city has failed to disclose what it does know to the public in a timely manner.

For example, city officials acknowledged last week in advance of Hurricane Hermine that St. Petersburg would have to discharge partially treated sewage into the bay. But they did not say when the discharge started until more than 12 hours after it began, or how much they expected to dump. Based on paperwork obtained from the state Department of Environmental Protection that was filed by the city, Tampa Bay Times' staff writer Charlie Frago reported Wednesday that the total as of Monday morning already was 20 million gallons. Another state report that the city did not release until Wednesday shows the discharge began Aug. 31.

Kriseman told the Times editorial board on Wednesday that he wants to make sure the information the city releases is accurate. That is understandable, but there is a benefit to informing the public about an issue as serious as this as the situation unfolds. St. Petersburg should have publicly announced last week when the discharges began, and it should have released the information it reported to the state when it sent that information to Tallahassee — not two days later.

This is not the first time St. Petersburg has sent partially treated sewage into the bay and been reticent about disclosing it. Last summer, weeks of heavy rains led to more than 30 million gallons of spills and discharges. In one instance, the city dumped 1.1 million gallons near Albert Whitted Airport but issued no public alert. A group of sailing students who had been swimming in the bay nearby were notified hours later by a city official who told them to take extra-hot showers. The City Council got fed up with the mixed messages too, after telling the public that the total for the summer was 16.5 million gallons only to learn through DEP reports that it was actually 31.5 million gallons.

This summer is another soggy one, and the city has again discharged millions of gallons into Tampa Bay. During each flood, Kriseman has been prolific on social media, tweeting about flooded intersections and reassuring residents. City officials battled with the media over what to call the sewage, pushing for the less offensive "highly diluted partially treated wastewater."

St. Petersburg isn't the only area getting swamped. Tampa, Clearwater, Pinellas County and others all spilled either raw sewage or partially treated sewage into area waters as Hermine doused the region. Given the regional scale of the challenges in processing wastewater and combatting flooding, there is simply no reason for Kriseman to hide from bad news. Greater transparency is the best philosophy, and the mayor did the right thing this week when he reversed a recent policy change prohibiting city employees from talking to the media or risk being fired. Kriseman acknowledged the language was unnecessarily punitive and wisely scrubbed it.

Days after the storm passed, dumping from Hurricane Hermine continues in St. Petersburg. The ground is still saturated in many places, and water is seeping into leaky sewer pipes, taxing the whole system. The city is set to spend nearly $60 million next year to begin to upgrade its 90-year-old sewer system. But more rain, and likely more sewage dumps, will happen in the meantime. With a problem this serious, communicating with the public is vital even as the situation evolves and the numbers are embarrassing.