DWU general manager downplays 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.

Destin Water Users General Manager Richard Griswold says local media outlets exaggerated the impacts of the sewage spills in Fort Walton Beach and Valparaiso over the Fourth of July weekend.

"So far, there haven't been any facts in the newspaper and that's something that needs to be addressed," he told city leaders during Monday night's City Council meeting. "For instance, the Daily News reported that 500,000 gallons of raw sewage went into Santa Rosa Sound — that's incorrect. Possibly, they estimate that 10 percent of that spill may have made it into the sound."

Officials from the Okaloosa County Health Department stated in a press release about the incident that “a pump station failure on Robinwood Drive SW in Fort Walton Beach resulted in the release of over 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the storm drain. Untreated wastewater was released into Santa Rosa Sound around 108 Highway 98 West in Fort Walton Beach.” Overflowing manholes in Valparaiso resulted in an additional 58,000 gallons leaking into storm drains that empty into Tom’s Bayou and Boggy Bayou.

"Whatever entered the bay was highly diluted," he added. “It was not near as bad as what was portrayed.”

With the spill happening over the weekend, notification signs and warnings to the public of potential hazards were not posted in affected areas until Monday. Due to heavy rains and the spill, swimmer warnings were extended to Destin’s East Pass and Clement Taylor Park on Tuesday.

 The gap in notification time drew the ire of County Commissioner Nathan Boyles.

“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.”

Griswold told city leaders in Destin, who were not notified of the spill over the weekend, that Boyles blamed the cities for not notifying the public and that "was wrong." He said proper protocol was followed.

The first step during any type of spill is to notify the "state warning point," Griswold said, who in turn notifies the appropriate agencies, which in this case is the health department.

"In addition to that, the emergency management department in Okaloosa County was notified," he said. "After that, you can decide where the blame lays."

Officials from the health department have stated that a phone call should have been made, instead of relying on the email system, but Griswold said contacting the health department can be tricky.

"All utilities know that calling the health department before 8 a.m., after 5 p.m., on weekends, on Friday afternoons, on holidays, and during hurricanes is a futile exercise," he wrote in prepared notes provided to The Log. "I do believe the local response will be improved, but that does not mean the county will always timely inform the public. The best thing utilities can do to help is to schedule all their crises during health department working hours."