1. Opinion

Editorial: Too much secrecy about public health risks

Published Sep. 19, 2016

There is too much government secrecy in Florida and Tampa Bay about recent public health threats. Whether it's Zika or sewage spills or contaminated water flowing from a fertilizer plant, public officials should be giving residents more information in a more timely manner. Floridians have long insisted on strong public records and open government requirements, and withholding news about potential health threats fuels suspicions of government cover-ups or political calculations taking precedence over everything else.

Zika. Gov. Rick Scott has been everywhere, lobbying Congress for money to limit the spread of the virus, holding public discussions in South Florida and Tampa Bay and issuing a flurry of news releases. Yet the state has failed to disclose timely or accurate information about the spread of the mosquito-borne virus. The Miami Herald reported that the Scott administration has stopped providing detailed information on epidemiological investigations on particular outbreaks, refused to name all of the Miami Beach sites where mosquitoes with Zika were trapped and under-reported the local Zika infections in Florida by excluding anyone who is not a state resident.

In Tampa Bay, Scott waited four days last month to announce the first locally transmitted case to the public but refused to say where in Pinellas the infected person lived. That needlessly increased public concern that could have been reduced by more specific information. The Tampa Bay Times reported it turned out to be a female Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter who lives in Pinellas.

A detailed description of the timeline of this Zika case and the response by state and local health officials reported last week by the Times' Christopher O'Donnell reflects a sense of thoroughness and urgency that is reassuring. But it would have been more helpful if the state had released those details as the situation unfolded rather than leaving millions of residents in the dark.

The state has expanded the local transmission area in Miami Beach to 4.5 square miles, and the Miami Herald has filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County seeking records showing locations where mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been trapped. There is no reason that information should be kept secret.

Sewage spills. In St. Petersburg, the city released up to 151 million gallons of partially treated sewage or mostly treated wastewater in the wake of Hurricane Hermine. Yet Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration repeatedly has failed to tell residents about the massive spills in a timely manner and eroded public trust in City Hall.

St. Petersburg officials acknowledged before the storm they would have to discharge partially treated sewage into Tampa 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. Paperwork filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection showing the spill had reached 20 million gallons and was continuing should have been simultaneously released to the public by the city.

Kriseman also did not inform the City Council or the public that 58 million gallons of mostly treated wastewater flowed out of the Northwest sewage plant even though the city was required to tell the state. The mayor's staff finally confirmed the spill five days after the wastewater stopped flowing, but residents already knew something was wrong from the wastewater in the street and in their yards. City officials hid behind the letter of the law and noted warning signs were posted in the neighborhood next to the plant. "They didn't need to be notified because it wasn't sewage; it was clean,'' Kriseman said of the general public.

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That insults the public, and City Council members who will discuss the issue Thursday agree that the spill should have been publicly announced. The issue of disclosure also should come up at today's meeting of the Pinellas legislative delegation about the discharges in St. Petersburg and elsewhere. To his credit, Kriseman pledged Monday to provide "more robust" public notification of future spills and discharges.

Fertilizer plant. An enormous sinkhole underneath a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer plant in Mulberry may take months to plug. It already may have dumped at least 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan Aquifer over the last three weeks — but nobody told the public.

Mosaic recognized the problem on Aug. 27 and notified the DEP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Polk County. Yet neither the company nor the state told the public. Whether Mosiac can keep the leak from contaminating the aquifer beyond its property line is an open question.

Contaminated water flowing into the aquifer. Sewage spewing into Tampa Bay. Zika-carrying mosquitoes. These are public health risks that should not be treated as state secrets, and Floridians deserve more timely, accurate information from every level of their government.