City leaders in Destin were not notified of sewage spill

Matt Algarin
An advisory sign warning the public to stay out of the water at Clement Taylor Park was posted after two sewage spills occurred in Okaloosa County this past weekend.

Talking about water issues may not be good for tourism in Destin, but Councilman Jim Wood says it's a conversation that must be had.

"Understanding where we live and with our emerald green waters, you don't want to talk about dirty water too much," he said, adding that he would also like to talk about water quality testing, who is doing it and where the results are being compiled.

The Okaloosa County Health Department has issued water quality notices in East Pass and at Clement Taylor Park in Destin urging people to stay out of the water, as a precaution, due to the sewage spills that took place in Fort Walton Beach and Valparaiso last weekend. A total of 558,000 gallons of sewage leaked into local streets and waterways.

As a note in its weekly water quality report, the health department added that they were advising the public not to enter the water and/or use jet skis or boats in waters from Liza Jackson Park in Fort Walton Beach to Clement Taylor Park "until samples show that the waters are safe."

And while the spills took place on Saturday, the public was not notified of the incidents until Monday, when the Health Department sent out a press release, and signs warning swimmers of possible contamination were posted.

When The Log asked Wood if he was notified of the spill, he said "the first thing I saw was the email that (County Commissioner) Nathan Boyles sent out" July 9.

While they said they followed protocol, officials in Fort Walton Beach and Valparaiso were criticized for not taking more initiative to notify the public.

As a military veteran, Wood likened this current situation to when email began to gain popularity in the armed forces.

"People would send an email and consider action taken," he said. "That's not how this should work."

Destin Mayor Sam Seevers, who was out of town at the time, said that she hadn't been notified either. Officials at City Hall also confirmed they were not notified of the spills, but said they were working on updating their contact information with the health department.

Given the delayed notification, especially during a busy holiday week, Commissioner Boyles has asked for representatives from the health department, Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson and Valparaiso Mayor Bruce Arnold to attend the commission meeting July 16 at 8:30 a.m. in the Water and Sewer Building on Lewis Turner Boulevard to address the slow response effort.

“When something happens that’s a public health threat, it’s important we get that information out to the public quickly,” Boyles was quoted as saying in the Northwest Florida Daily News. “I want to know what went wrong and I want a way collectively to fix it so it doesn’t happen again.”

As for Wood, he'll be curious to see what comes of the upcoming meeting. If anything, he said the best bet may be to make sure local municipalities pick up the phone and contact the proper authorities in similar situations, as opposed to sending an email.

"It seems like you should have to actually physically talk to someone or call them on the phone," he said.