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Whistle-blower prompts mayor to order review of city's sewer management

ST. PETERSBURG — A high-level wastewater official says the city should have known that closing a sewage plant would cause a huge problem.

Early Friday morning, Craven R. Askew, chief operator of the city's Northeast sewage plant, emailed Mayor Rick Kriseman to say just that, adding that he was seeking whistle-blower protection from retaliation for stepping forward.

His claim? A 2014 study showed that closing the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant on the city's waterfront would overwhelm the city's three remaining plants, especially the Southwest plant, where all of the downtown sewage would flow.

In an 11-page letter, Askew's highly technical claim showed how heavy rains could overwhelm the Southwest plant. That, in fact, happened in August 2015 when the plant spilled about 30 million gallons into Clam Bayou and onto the Eckerd College campus.

After that spill, the city still didn't act, Askew wrote.

"The city had eight months to place Albert Whitted back into service. … Instead, the city kept (Albert Whitted) down and (continued) to dismantle the plant. Albert Whitted needs to be placed back into service until (Southwest) completes the required upgrades for the sake of Public Health and Environmental impact of sewage spills," Askew wrote.

In July, Askew outlined his concerns to his superiors in a series of emails.

Fearing for his job, Askew is seeking protection under the federal Whistleblower Protection and Clean Water acts.

"I have faith and respect in the elected council and the people of St. Petersburg to keep our public and the environment safe. I would like to thank the hardworking and dedicated wastewater operators that are our front line to protect and serve the environment," Askew said in a statement.

Askew, 44, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been in the wastewater industry since 1997, has worked for the city for more than six years. A St. Petersburg resident, he has operated the Northeast plant since 2012.

Former Mayor Bill Foster said he knows Askew and thinks highly of him. "He's legit. He's the real deal. He's very knowledgeable about the system."

On Friday afternoon, Kriseman issued a statement.

"Included in Mr. Askew's email is a consultant's report that I believe has never been shared publicly or with my office or with City Council," Kriseman wrote. "As such, I have asked our legal and human resources departments to work with an independent firm to learn why this report has only recently surfaced and to conduct a thorough management review of Water Resources. I demand accountability to me, to City Council and to the citizens we serve."

The City Council voted to shut Albert Whitted in 2011 after studies showed that closing the plant would save millions of dollars.

Then came the soaking August 2015 rains and subsequent sewage spills. In June, Tropical Storm Colin prompted 10 million gallons to be dumped into Tampa Bay. Hurricane Hermine led to about 150 million gallons more waste fouling local waterways, streets and beaches.

Kriseman, who took office in 2014, has blamed the inattention of previous mayors, mentioning both Foster and Rick Baker.

On Friday, Foster shot back, saying his intention had been to keep Albert Whitted running until an expansion of the Southwest plant was complete. He said the state would have allowed that to happen.

Instead, for much of Kriseman's tenure, city economic development officials actively pursued plans to convert the shuttered plant into a fish farm. Colin scuttled those plans.

Kriseman needs to step up, Foster said: "Leave me out of this. This is on you."

Foster said his fascination with the city's 900-plus miles of sewers and consistent attention to them earned him the nickname "Mayor Doody."

"(Mayor) Baker had hurricanes. I had tropical storms. We all have nasty weather. We live on a peninsula in Florida. Hearing that previous administrations were somehow not paying attention, that couldn't be further from the truth," Foster said.

Kriseman said he respected Foster and understood why he felt the need to weigh in. But the mayor said he is focused on the present and future.

"He is making the hard choices and heavy lifting that needs to be done to improve St. Pete," Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman, wrote in an email late Friday.

Kriseman has dedicated $38 million to wastewater in next year's budget and more than $100 million over the next five years.

But no major fix to the sewage system is possible until the Southwest plant's expansion is done in two years, he has said.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection sent a proposed consent order to the city on Friday outlining the steps the city must take to avoid fines.

One requirement? The city must explain why it shouldn't reopen the Albert Whitted plant. It also must say how it plans to replace the treatment capacity that the plant's closure cost the city.

Kriseman's office hasn't seen the order and declined to comment, Kirby said.

DEP officials said they received Askew's complaint Tuesday. They said the agency is evaluating the documents he provided.

Askew hasn't filed a lawsuit, as far as the city knows, said city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch. She declined to comment if the whistle-blower status that Askew seeks applies in his case.

The city's human resources director, Chris Guella, said he isn't aware of any discussions to terminate or discipline Askew.

Askew received a two-day suspension in March for making an inappropriate joke. He has no other significant disciplinary marks on his record.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who called for a state investigation in June, said Askew's claims would be considered at a meeting Tuesday of local state lawmakers called by Sen. Jack Latvala to discuss the sewage crisis.

Steve Kornell, the only sitting council member to have voted against closing the Albert Whitted plant, said it's time to find a solution to the sewage crisis.

"People don't care whose fault it is. They just want it fixed. They want us to fix it," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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