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Email warning ignored before St. Pete started spewing sewage

Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people in September 2016 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system. St. Petersburg dumped up to 200 million gallons of sewage over 13 months from 2015-16. A new state report blames much of the crisis on mistakes made by the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman, but also critcizes past administrations. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Jul. 24, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A draft report lays blame for the city's sewage crisis squarely on the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman and a cascading series of errors that started with the now infamous shuttering of the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility in 2015.

The state report confirmed what many had long suspected: closing the plant was a major factor leading to the release of up to 200 million gallons of sewage over 13 months.

But what about before the plant was taken offline? Should city officials have known how risky it was to close Albert Whitted? Was there any warning?

In fact, there was a warning — sounded from inside the Water Resources Department.

It was delivered on March 21, 2015, just weeks before Albert Whitted was closed that April. The Tampa Bay Times obtained an email from a high-ranking sewer official warning his superiors of signs that closing Albert Whitted might be stressing the city's sewage system.

Back in 2015, the city spent months slowly transferring Albert Whitted's sewage flow to the Southwest plant next to Eckerd College in preparation for shutting Albert Whitted down.

Charlie Wise, who supervises the city's three remaining sewer plants, said he sent the email to warn of higher-than-anticipated sewage flows into the Southwest plant, which was receiving Albert Whitted's flows.

"I don't know whether I would say that Albert Whitted should have been kept open," he told the Times. "In my opinion, it was enough so that someone ought to have at least looked at it."

None of his superiors responded to Wise's email, records show.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Rick Kriseman's administration lashed in St. Pete sewage report

A spokesman for the mayor said Kriseman was never told of Wise's concerns.

The city took no action to delay or cancel the closing of Albert Whitted.

"There was this alarm bell going off and no one listened," said City Council member Amy Foster.

• • •

The Times obtained Wise's email as part of a trove of documents released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from a federal inquiry into the crisis. The investigation ended in May, and the documents were released July 5.

The sewage crisis has become the issue in the mayoral contest pitting the incumbent Kriseman against former Mayor Rick Baker.

The process to close Albert Whitted started in 2011 when the City Council voted to close the plant. That decision was carried out by the Kriseman administration in 2015.

Baker, who was mayor from 2001-10, has hammered his opponent for closing the plant, calling it a huge error. Kriseman has blamed former city officials for giving him terrible advice.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's draft report lays out the Kriseman administration's missteps. It was also the basis for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's recent decision not to file criminal charges against city employees. However, FWC said its investigation is not yet over.

The closure of Albert Whitted came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine last year as the city's sewers overflowed with waste. Another state report concluded that the plant's closure exacerbated the sewage spills.

READ: FWC's draft report into the sewage crisis

Last year a 2014 consultant's report came to light that warned it was risky to close Albert Whitted. Kriseman and City Council members said they never saw the report and hired an investigator to determine if it was kept from them. The investigator concluded it was not.

That 2014 study, though, was theoretical. Wise was seeing a potential problem in real time and noting his observations daily. His March 2015 email is the most concrete indication yet that red flags were being raised before Albert Whitted was closed.

• • •

No one was talking about sewers in the spring of 2015. Kriseman was negotiating a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays that would allow the team to look outside the city for a new ballpark. A citywide recycling program was also poised to start.

Albert Whitted was mostly known by residents as the local airport. The 1920s-era sewage plant, the city's first, was an afterthought tucked away along the waterfront.

Then Wise fired off that March 21, 2015 email.

"Quality check me here!" he wrote. "The point is that I want some quality checking of my concern that we are seeing flows higher than projected (in a 2010 consultant study)."

Wise was measuring the combined flows from the Albert Whitted and Southwest sewage plants. More and more of Albert Whitted's workload was being pumped to Southwest.

Wise was manually recording the flows each day. He was concerned that the volume of sewage coming into the Southwest plant was higher than the study had predicted.

"Am I missing something or misinterpreting?" Wise asked in the email.

The only one to respond to the email was a city employee under him: His brother Kenny Wise, chief operator of the Southwest plant.

"You are not missing or misinterpreting anything," Kenny Wise wrote. His email reply said the problem had been occurring for at least a year. He said it actually started even before the Southwest plant started taking on the extra flow.

No one above Charlie Wise responded to his email. So he said he talked to his then-boss, former Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt, about the issue. Wise said Leavitt didn't think the flows were high enough to change the city's plan to close Albert Whitted.

Leavitt, who was fired by Kriseman last year, wrote an email to the Times saying he doesn't remember any specific conversations or emails regarding higher flows.

Former Public Works Administrator Mike Connors, who abruptly retired at the start of the sewage spills in August 2015, did not return a request for comment. Kriseman has blamed Connors and Leavitt for misleading him about the efficacy of closing Albert Whitted.

• • •

Wise said he followed the chain of command. When his bosses failed to act on his concerns, he simply accepted it.

City Council member Steve Kornell said he was dismayed to learn that another warning sign of the impending sewage mess was ignored.

"I was never informed about these increased flows," Kornell said. "I think this underscores my initial concerns, which were our staff was not telling us all the information... It absolutely should have stopped the closure of the Albert Whitted plant in my opinion."

Unlike the 2014 consultant's study, Wise's email was never discussed during many hours of City Council discussions about sewage problems.

The City Council on Thursday agreed to a consent order with the state that requires the city to spend $326 million to fix its sewage system.

The FWC draft report went into great detail about the role closing Albert Whitted played in the sewage crisis. Wise said he spent hours being interviewed by federal and state investigators, and they repeatedly brought up the closing of Albert Whitted and the 2014 consultant's report, asking him:

"Why was this done? What about this study?"

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: ST. PETERSBURG'S SEWAGE CRISIS

Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

St. Pete sewer plant operator seeks whistleblower protections, saying city knew it shouldn't shutter Albert Whitted plant (Sept. 16, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman fires one official, demotes another over sewage mess (Dec. 20, 2016)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)

St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill (July 21, 2017)

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