St. Petersburg clarifies rules after unreported wastewater spills

After the city failed to notify the public through its usual channels to two recent wastewater spills, city officials formalized a procedure to reduce "human error."
Published December 15 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials admitted Thursday that they had failed to post two notices of recent wastewater spills on the city's website, which has been the city’s practice.

The discussion at a City Council meeting followed a Tampa Bay Times story last week that documented six recent wastewater incidents that together spilled a combined 2 million gallons. The worst spill dumped 1.7 million gallons of contaminated water into the lake at Walter Fuller Park over a 50-day period before it was corrected, prompting the city to install warning signs around the lake. Officials posted notifications on the city's website and through its social media channels for only four of those incidents.

"Admittedly, we had two times over these past recent spills... where that didn't happen," said Deputy Mayor and City Administrator Kanika Tomalin. "That's unacceptable."

Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley characterized the failure to post the spills as an oversight. He said one was "pure error." The other happened during Thanksgiving weekend and it wasn't addressed later.

That's a direct contradiction to what Tankersley's spokesman, Public Works Communications Manager Bill Logan, told the Times last week. At the time, Logan said the city did not post the two spills — a 21,000 gallon spill on Oct. 14 spill and a 10,000 gallon spill Nov. 23 — intentionally, because they did not escape the property of the wastewater treatment plant. He said that was policy as of about two months ago.

About not posting minor spills to the city's website, Logan said: "There's no sense making bullets for people to shoot at us."

There are certain steps the city must take after a spill in order to comply with state law and its consent order, put in place after the 2015-16 sewage crisis in which the city dumped up to 1 billion gallons, up to 200 million of which went into Tampa Bay. Those steps include notifying the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The city had also adopted the standard of notifying the Department of Health and posting spills to the city's website and sending out alerts via social media.

To ensure everyone in his department is on the same page, Tankersley told the council he implemented a flow chart that will guide staff on what public notification steps to take, depending on the severity of the spill. The lowest level spill, which include spills of less than 1,000 gallons on restricted land, will trigger a subdued public notification regime. The most severe incidents on the chart, which are more than 1,000 gallons of sewage spilled in an area with public access, will prompt a much higher level of notification, including phone calls to affected residents.

Every spill, no matter the size, will generate at least a notification sent to the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health, Pinellas County Environmental Management, City Council, relevant city staff, the mayor and be posted on the city's public works information page.

"These events have led us to realize that we needed to clarify for ourselves internally what is the procedure for reporting these events," Tankersley said. "So we can eliminate the possibility of human error."

The discussion about notification happened immediately after Tankersley notified council members of two new spills, both small in scope. The first, which happened at the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility on Wednesday, saw 15 gallons of raw sewage spill. Nearly all of it was vacuumed up. In the second, which happened Thursday, 4,500 gallons of treated reclaimed water leaked from a pipe along the 2400 block of Roy Hanna Drive near Pinellas Point. That water led to a storm drain.

City staff posted notifications about both those spills.

Newly elected Council Chair Charlie Gerdes said he has been encouraged by the support he has seen from residents for the city's plan to invest in its aging wastewater infrastructure. He said one mistake can make all that well-wishing disappear.

"A hundred ‘attaboys’ go away with one ‘oh no,’" he said.

Council member Steve Kornell told Tankersley he took issue with Logan's "bullets" comment, which appeared in last week's article.

"That quote flies completely in the face of transparency," Kornell said. "I don't think that was the right quote to go into the paper at this time by a relatively well paid staff person who's supposedly an expert in communication."

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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