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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Whistleblower says NW plant spill dirtier than Kriseman claims



One of the city’s top wastewater officials once again blew the whistle Tuesday, claiming that a 58-million-gallon spill earlier this month at the city’s Northwest plant was a public safety threat.

"I noticed the following 10 violation througout the spill," wrote Craven Askew, who runs the city's Northeast wastewater treatment plant. "Public safety and the environment is suspected to be possibly in danger due to the sewer (sic) spills produced by the Albert Whitted....and Northwest (plant) spills." 

That claim, delivered via email to city officials, directly contradicts Mayor Rick Kriseman’s earlier assertions that the massive spill was essentially reclaimed water---or what residents sprinkle on their lawns.

Askew said high turbidity levels for about 30 hours between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4 indicate sewage considerably dirtier than that which Kriseman characterized as clean last week.

Kriseman said low fecal coliform counts are what is important. He said until he sees proof otherwise, he’s sticking by his previous positions.

“ The information that i had making those statement then and now is based upon testing results and bacteria levels. Until I’m presented with documents or test results that contradict that…” Kriseman said. “If it wasn’t safe I’d be the first one screaming about it.”

Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said turbidity is just one of many parameters used to determine wastewater quality.  Cloudy sewage could be caused by tree bark or paper, he said.

Normal rivers or streams have high turbidity, he said, fecal coliform levels are much more important, Tankersley said.

Many substances are murky but not dangerous, including milk, coffee or tea, Tankersley said.

High-ranking sewage officials haven’t always had presented high levels of turbidity in those terms.

Last year, after 15 million gallons of wastewater spilled at the city’s Southwest plant, Water Resouces Director Steve Leavitt said that low levels of turbidity in that spill was an good sign that the sewage wasn’t dangerous.

And an independent consultant contacted by the Times to review Askew’s data, said an initial look didn’t back up Kriseman’s position.

“Simply put, there were values that did not meet minimum standards as per FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) permit guidelines for reclaimed water. So for the mayor to say that it was nearly the same as reclaimed doesn’t seem quite right,” said Thomas Butler, chairman of the Suncoast Utility Contractors Associat

Butler noted the high turbidity and chlorine---which is used to disinfect waste---didn’t meet state standards.

Kriseman said last week that the wastewater “wasn’t sewage, it was clean.” He said then, and maintained Tuesday, that it met reclaimed water standards. The city reported it as “reject” water, a slightly dirtier classification, only because it didn’t got through the final stage of filtration, officials said at the time.

The spill remained unknown by most of the public until more than a week after it ended on Sept. 7. Tankersley, briefing City Council on the sewage crisis, didn’t mention it. Signs were posted on 22nd Avenue N, where the sewage coursed across the street and into residents’ yards, but no other notification was given. No news release was issued nor was the news disseminated through any of Kriseman’s many social media outlets

Residents didn’t need to know, the mayor said last week, because there was no public health risk.

Askew said the opposite on Tuesday.

But Askew is only one of 30 licensed plant operators in the city, Tankersley said. He said he would gather opinions from all of them and present his findings as soon as possible.

“Their voices have not been heard on this. I think that’s important, “ Tankersley said.

He declined to comment on most of Askew’s claims, saying he hadn’t had a chance to fully review the documentation.

“That’s Mr. Askew’s opinion, I respect it. But I’m not a licensed operator,” said Tankersley.

On Tuesday, Congressman David Jolly said he was very likely to call for an investigation by the federal EPA into the city’s sewage crisis. He said he didn’t want St. Petersburg to turn into another Flint, Mich, where lead in the water supply has riveted national attention.

Kriseman said he talked to Jolly and gave him information that the congressman didn’t have when Jolly made his comments to the Times.

But Jolly hasn’t changed his mind about a federal probe after Kriseman’s call, said his spokesman Preston Rudie.

“There is no change in Congressman Jolly’s position. It is still under consideration,” Rudie said.




[Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2016 3:40pm]


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