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Suncoast Sierra Club demands answers on raw sewage dump in Clam Bayou

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Suncoast Sierra Club is asking for answers concerning the recent dumping of more than 15 million gallons of untreated sewage into Clam Bayou and another 5 million of treated sewage into Tampa Bay.

In a letter sent to city officials Tuesday, Sierra Club writes, “We understand that the unusually heavy rains caused a crisis situation that demanded an extraordinary response. However, dumping millions of gallons of untreated sewage … is something we absolutely must avoid ever doing again.”

City officials overseeing St. Pete’s wastewater facilities made the decision in late July to divert wastewater from its Southwest Florida Water Reclamation facility to the bayou near Eckerd College. The facility is built to withstand about 20 million gallons a day of raw sewage from things like toilet and sink water and rain. During the heavy rains spanning several days, the facility was taking in about double its intended capacity.

“Climatologists, including local resident Dr. David Hastings, are predicting that the advent  of global climate change will result in an increase in dramatic rain events such as the one  recently suffered by our community.  We need a better plan for dealing with this  eventuality,” the Sierra Club letter read.

The wastewater discharge into Clam Bayou wreaked havoc on Eckerd College and Gulfport. The liberal arts school was forced to cancel any water-related events including sailing, paddle boarding and a planned swim test in Frenchman’s Creek. Gulfport had to close its public beach as wastewater overflowed into Boca Ciega Bay.

And officials at Eckerd College say they weren’t appropriately informed of the decision.

“We believe that an accurate and understandable reporting  of emergency discharge is critical to the confidence that residents have in our services  managers,” Sierra Club wrote.

The issue also reinvigorated questions concerning the recent decommission of another wastewater facility near Albert Whitted Airport. St. Pete officials couldn’t say whether the wastewater overflow would have been prevented if that facility were still up and running, but those critical of the city’s handling of the rain crisis, including Sierra Club, suspect it may have.

Sierra Club is asking for a meeting with pertinent city officials to go over what the city is doing to monitor waters where wastewater was dumped and how they are planning to ensure another rain crisis doesn’t lead to the same conclusion.

Here is the entire letter:

We are writing in reference to the recent two incidents of sewage discharge into our  local waterways.  We understand that the unusually heavy rains caused a crisis situation  that demanded an extraordinary response. However, dumping millions of gallons of  untreated sewage into Clam Bayou and another 5 million of treated waste into the bay is  something we absolutely must avoid ever doing again.   

Sierra club is aware that seemingly minor fluctuations in the composition of discharged  wastewater, both above and below regulatory limits, can make the difference between  potable water, reclaimed water, treated sewage water and untreated sewage water.  These characterizations can be inflammatory to the public when reported in less than  accurate terms and context. We believe that an accurate and understandable reporting  of emergency discharge is critical to the confidence that residents have in our services  managers. A clear understanding of the challengers inherent in producing low impact  wastewater and the infrastructure necessary to handle high capacity becomes more  important as our community plans for a new climate reality.    

Climatologists, including local resident Dr. David Hastings, are predicting that the advent  of global climate change will result in an increase in dramatic rain events such as the one  recently suffered by our community.  We need a better plan for dealing with this  eventuality.   

We feel there should be more transparency within the decision making process  whenever our public health, environment, and tourism industry are threatened so  dramatically.  We are concerned about the processes in place to deal with sewage  emergencies, the response time in announcing the sewage discharge, the potential  shortfall in capacity given the recent decommission of the wastewater center near Albert  Whitted airport, and the overall status of our waste water infrastructure.  We would also  like to know how the city is dealing with the after effects of the spill, namely, monitoring  and cleanup efforts.  

Suncoast Sierra Club members are interested in meeting with you to find out how we  can work together to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again.  We request a  meeting with city officials to answer these questions so that we might partner with you  to improve this unfortunate situation. 

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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