St. Pete sewage treatment tours about transparency

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After dumping millions of gallons of partially-treated sewage into the bay during recent storms, the City of St. Pete on Saturday took an unusual approach to government transparency.

They invited the public to tour the city's sewage plants.

It's not the first place you'd think to take the kids. The smell might have something to do with that. But for 8- and 9-year-old Arden Katcha and Finn Cox, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Northeast Water Treatment Facility was a pretty cool way to spend a Saturday morning.

"The lab was pretty cool when they changed [the water] to color. Pink's my favorite color," said Katcha after a titration demonstration in the facility's lab.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who faced harsh criticism and a state investigation after the dumping incidents, made the call to open up the city's facilities for tours. Kriseman said he hoped it'd give citizens an opportunity to ask questions and gain an understanding of how water is treated.

"Here's a chance for people to come and see it and touch it, you don't necessarily want to touch it and feel it, but you at least get to see and learn about how it goes from in your house, to eventually getting treated and then eventually what happens with the water," said Kriseman.

Beyond a show and tell, visitors were invited to ask questions from top officials, including chief plant operator Craven Askew, who made headlines in September after he blew the whistle on city policies he says led up to this summer's sewage dumps.

"This is what it's all about: letting the public know what we do on a day to day basis to protect and serve the environment," said Askew, who says he finally sees things moving in the right direction. "I see a great step moving forward. Seeing that the Albert Wittig Facility needs to be back up is a great thing. I think the public would be happy, and especially the environment."

Since his whistleblower letter, two top officials have been suspended and an interim water resources director has taken over. Officials say they're focused on providing transparency as they try to fix the city's water problems

"Transparency means how we operate, but also what our infrastructure needs are so the public can demand that these things get addressed," said interim director John Palenchar, who cautions the problems the city's aging water treatment system faces won't be fixed overnight. "It's underground: out of sight, out of mind. Part of what we're doing is to bring it into the light. We need to take this public attention and leverage it to get the work done that we need to get done."