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St. Petersburg sewage spill stories remain at odds

Published Sep. 27, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city administration continues to struggle with its accounting of the circumstances surrounding massive sewage dumps this summer, a whistle-blowing plant operator says.

The whistle-blower contends Mayor Rick Kriseman blamed a low-level employee for an inaccurate report to the state about sewage spilled in northwest St. Petersburg.

Late Friday, Kriseman said the employee was "essentially a clerk" who classified the spill as treated effluent, even though the plant operator had recommended it be classified as partly treated. The city changed its classification late Friday from "treated effluent," or completely treated sewage, to "partially treated" wastewater. A new policy change Kriseman announced Friday would require plant operators to fill out the notification forms.

"No disrespect to her, but she's essentially a clerk,'' Kriseman said, not a plant operator who runs the facility.

On Monday, Craven Askew, the wastewater official who blew the whistle on previously hidden aspects of the city's sewage crisis, said the person in question was a high-ranking employee qualified to make the call. He wrote that the "water reclaim plant operation specialist" is a technical position, not a clerk.

"This is a highly technical staff support and instructional work in the monitoring and operation of process control activities in several advanced water reclamation facilities," Askew wrote to Kriseman, City Council members and other officials in 20 pages of documents.

"The individual reviews and revises all local/state/federal rules associated to wastewater treatment."

He further noted that the city's procedures already require operators and staff to report to regulators when unauthorized releases occur.

City payroll records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times in 2013 showed the specialist earned nearly $71,000, more than Askew at that time. Only one person on the city's payroll held the title of "water reclaim plant operation specialist" in 2013, records show.

Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman, said the mayor still prefers a tighter policy to report spills.

"He wants a licensed chief plant operator filling out the forms and submitting them to the DEP," Kirby said, declining to comment further.

Kirby did not respond to a request at 2 p.m. Monday for the updated policy.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said it's a good idea to make the chief operator complete the form. But Gerdes questions why someone told Kriseman that a clerk submitted the report.

"That's quite a bit more than a clerk makes," Gerdes said about the $71,000 salary in 2013.

Askew's records also include multiple emails between himself, the specialist and Charles Wise, the manager who oversees the three plants and 85 lift stations across the city. He says they show that the employee in question had the authority to report spills to the state.

Duties for a "water reclaim plant operation specialist" include monitoring and overseeing the operational process, training and instructing employees, conducting tests and preparing and processing control records for use by "all regulatory agencies governing the operation" of a plant, according to city records.

Askew wrote it is common for the specialist to review the records sent to the state.

"I would verify over all violations to make sure all is stated in the report, second pair of technical eyes prior to submitting," Askew said.

When the Times first reported the spill at its Northwest plant on Sept. 12, which officials hadn't even told City Council members about, the mayor was adamant that the overflow wasn't sewage at all. It was clean, he said. He held that position until Friday.

In a series of revelations, Askew has shown that top city officials should have known the city would suffer sewage overflows if it closed the Albert Whitted plant on the downtown waterfront. That plant was closed anyway last year.

All told, nearly 200 million gallons of untreated and partly treated sewage have been spilled or dumped by the city into local waterways and watershed.

Multiple investigations are under way.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has teamed with the Florida Department of Health and the law enforcement division of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to review what took place.

Researchers from the University of South Florida are waiting for test results that will measure bacteria levels of the spills. Initial tests came back inconclusive and required a second round of samples. The results could be available in a few weeks, said Lara Wade, a university spokeswoman.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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