Whistleblower: St. Pete warned in 2014 about sewer problems

Kellie Cowan reports

- After cities around the Bay admitted to dumping millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into nearby waterways, a St. Pete water treatment worker is blowing the whistle.

Craven Askew, the chief plant operator at the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Facility, claims city officials were warned the sewer system would not be able to handle a major rain event if one of the city's four water treatment plants shut down - but they did it any way.

On Friday, Askew sent a letter to St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and city council members. In it, he said the city was told its sewage treatment facilities would not be able to keep up during significant rain events if they shut down the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility (AWWRF).

According to Askew, a 2014 report outlined recommended upgrades necessary to prevent a sewage spill, but those upgrades were never made. Instead, the facility was shut down a year later.

READ: Sewage dumping may be causing bird deaths

Just a few months after it closed in April of 2015, unusually heavy rains overloaded the system and 30 million gallons of sewage was dumped into Tampa Bay waters.

After that, Askew says the city had eight months to get the Albert Whitted plant back online. Instead, the city kept taking it apart.

"The city had eight months to place Albert Whitted back into service due to a recent study by CH2M and Brown & Caldwell reports," wrote Askew. "Instead, the city kept [Albert Whitted] down and continued to dismantle the plant."

Askew said officials considered the two-week rain storm in August 2015 as "an unusual weather event."

Since then, however, the Bay Area has experienced two more unusual events: Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine, which forced cities to dump millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the water.

READ: Business owners see direct impacts of sewage dumping

Kriseman responded to Askew's accusations in a statement, saying the email included a consultant's report that Kriseman believes has never been shared publicly or with his office or city council.

"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,"Kriseman said in the statement.

Askew could not be reached for comment, but a family member said he felt the threat to people and the environment was significant enough for him to speak out as a whistleblower, and they're hoping it doesn't cost him his job.

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