St. Petersburg City Council says latest spill hurts city's credibility
ST. PETERSBURG — Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley briefed the City Council on Thursday about the most recent sewage spill, which took place the night before at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility near Eckerd College.
The semi-treated water was released Wednesday because of a construction-related failure, he said as he walked council through what happened.
Parts of the system were out of commission due to construction. After a heavy rain, the water flow in the plant doubled. This caused a 50,000 gallon overflow from a chlorine contact chamber.
At first the city said it was contained by a retention pond. Then officials said the overflow was soaked up by the ground.
In retrospect, Tankersley said the city made a mistake sending out a report to the public before the plant had fully grasped what had happened. Informing the public became an issue during the 2015-16 sewage spills, which prompted the city to expand the Southwest plants and the rest of its sewage system.
Public works spokesman Bill Logan said the Southwest plant operator sent out an email about the spill around 11 p.m. Wednesday, but he didn’t see it because he was already asleep. He said he found the email when he checked his phone around 6:15 a.m. Thursday.
Logan then notified the Tampa Bay Times, which had asked if the recent rains had led to any spills.
“If I had to go back and do this again I would not have sent out the report at 11:16 at night in an email,” Tankersley. “We jumped the gun.
“I praise staff for doing that as quickly as possible but by doing that we failed to use safeguards we have in place.”
Council members stressed that small incidents like this, which should be preventable, do even more damage to the already fraying public trust. Although they chalked up much of the drama to semantics and communication issues, City Council member Amy Foster said the damage was done.
“I thought bringing on a communications director was going to help us avoid these missteps,” Foster said. “We have to keep our story straight and not switch back and forth. We have to work really hard to be as transparent as possible so the public trusts us.”
Added Council member Darden Rice: “It just makes the accident that much more unfortunate because it was a manageable amount. I think the damage is more to our credibility.”