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St. Petersburg wastewater official says he fears retaliation for opposing mayor's sewer crisis "narrative"



ST. PETERSBURG — The city's Water Resources Department — already inundated by a 14-month sewer crisis — has had a lot of employees fearing for their jobs.

Two plant operators have stepped forward to blow the whistle on questionable decisions that may have lead to about 200 million gallons of sewage being spilled or dumped since August 2015. Two senior officials have been placed on unpaid leave in connection to the crisis.

On Wednesday, another employee''s fears that he might be next surfaced in an Oct. 7 email to Chris Guella, the city's human resources director.

 "I am in fear of losing my job due to retaliation for revealing information and supporting documents that are contrary to the story that is being presented by the Administration," wrote Steven Marshall, the department's energy efficiency and sustainability manager, to Guella.

Marshall, 54, has worked for the city since 2000. He coordinated with Brown and Caldwell, a Tampa consulting firm, to conduct the now highly-scrutinized 2014 report which predicted that the city could have major sewage issues if it shut down the Albert Whitted treatment plant.

The city did just that in 2015. Last month, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he had never seen the report. City Council members said the same.

Last week, the council hired Laura Brock, an independent forensic auditor, to conduct an investigation into why that report was buried.

In his email, Marshall pushed back, saying the report had been widely circulated within the Water Resources and Engineering Departments. Eckerd College also had access through an online site, he wrote.

"I know that it is never prudent to be on the opposite side of the narrative of the administration, but I feel that if I do not defend myself against these claims, I will be blamed for decisions made with regard to the closing of (Albert Whitted), a decision which I had no (role) in," Marshall wrote.

The mayor's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said Marshall's fears are part of the reason why the city hired an auditor to look into the sewage crisis.

"This is why the city’s is engaging Laura Brock's organization and we have every confidence Mr. Marshall's memo and the issues he raises will be part of her review," Kirby said.

Two of Marshall's superiors, Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt and Engineering Director Tom Gibson, have been placed on unpaid leave by Kriseman after the 2014 report surfaced last month. 

That report came to light after Craven Askew, a chief plant operator at the Northeast plant, sought federal whistle blower protection last month. Askew sent council members a series of documents outlining how the city should have known that closing its Albert Whitted facility put the city at risk of sewage overflows.

This week, another plant operator, Kyle Soriano, said he asked for a written record of his superiors' request to open a valve at the Northwest plan so they could try to pump sewage directly into Boca Ciega Bay to relieve pressure on their overburdened plant after Hurricane Hermine. The Sept. 3 plan failed, sending even more sewage into neighborhoods around the plant.

The city never notified the state of its plan, which failed after a brief test.

The Northwest plant ended up releasing 58 million gallons of waste into the neighborhoods, all of which eventually emptied into Boca Ciega Bay. The magnitude of the spill came to light a week after it happened. The city posted signs in neighborhoods affected by that spill, but didn't otherwise notify the public or City Council until the following week.

All told, St. Petersburg's aging and overloaded sewage system has released nearly 200 million gallons of spills and dumps since August 2015, most of it flowing into Tampa Bay.

The state is currently investigating the city's handling of its sewage crisis. 

On Thursday, council members will gather at 8 a.m. to discuss a review of the management of the Water Resources Department. 

Marshall did not respond to a request for comment.

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2016 7:20pm]


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