New video reveals major wastewater problems in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — The St. Petersburg City Council voted Thursday for an outside investigation into the troublesome sewage dump.

As Hurricane Hermine passed, 15 inches of rain fell in four days in St. Petersburg. Earlier this week the Florida Department of Environmental Protection revealed more than 148 million gallons of wastewater had been dumped into Tampa Bay from several cities.

New video shows water shooting out of the top of a storage tank at a city wastewater treatment plant. The water from the treatment plant flooded a neighborhood. Mayor Rick Kriseman claimed it was not a public health hazard, but documents from whistle-blower Craven Askew say otherwise.

St. Petersburg City Councilman Charlie Gerdes reviewed the video. “I don’t think it’s fully treated sewer water,” Gerdes said.

The councilman believes the public should have been immediately notified of the spill.

“As soon as that spill happened, there should have been notification. Whether at the time they believed it was mostly clean, partly clean, whatever, whatever the status was, there should have been a notification right away,” Gerdes said.

Councilman Steve Kornell agreed with Gerdes. “I think we made a huge mistake in not informing people immediately,” Kornell said. “I’ve said multiple times on the record that the second we started discharging, I thought the second after that, we should have informed the public. We should have informed the media.”

“I will vote for whatever funding is needed to fix this,” he told the mayor.

Mayor Kriseman addressed the issue Thursday. “No one is angrier about this than I am,” he told the council.

“We need to better engage the public and the press,” Kriseman said.

The mayor apparently went out a side door after the meeting so News Channel 8 was unable to ask him questions. 8 On Your Side went to his office, but he was gone, people said. An aide for the mayor said he’d be available to speak with News Channel 8 Friday.

Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley told council members the city made a mistake when it closed the Albert Whitted water treatment plant.

“The Southwest plant should have been expanded before Albert Whitted was closed, so that is my stance. That is my opinion. Looking at the data it’s clear to me that decision should have been made,” Tankersly said.

The decision to close Albert Whitted was made in 2011. Only two council members, Kornell and former councilman Wengay Newton, voted against the closure. Newton, who is running for the state representative, said the city made big mistakes.

“This is nothing new,” Newton said. “If you take something offline before you got something to replace it, yes, you make yourself more culpable, but they’re saying they didn’t know.”

Council members were told it may take two to three years before a permanent solution to the wastewater problems can be put into place.

Tankersly publicly thanked Askew for bringing some of the wastewater problems to the public’s attention. Askew’s remarks may now get more attention from other sources as well. Republican Congressman David Jolly met with Askew this week. Late Wednesday Jolly revealed the whistle-blower report may involve legal action.

“Following extensive conversations with Mr. Askew regarding the recent wastewater discharge by the City, as well as a review of related documents, this has now become a matter that reaches beyond the jurisdiction of my Congressional office and merits a review by law enforcement. I have spoken with state law enforcement officials who have direct investigative responsibility over environmental matters and they have concurred that the allegations rise to the level of a formal investigation. My office is now assisting with the transfer of material information and will have no further comment on the case. This is now a matter for law enforcement,” Jolly said in a statement.

As city officials scramble to figure out what to do in the long-term, leaders are looking for a fast-fix. The options on the table right now are ramping up the expansion at the Southwest treatment plant and re-opening the Albert Whitted treatment plant.

Residents at Thursday’s city council meeting say they want answers now.

“We as constituents, we as residents are looking for from our government is the trust,” Corey Givens said.

“So I think my big takeaway tonight is the need for real robust long-term planning,” Emily Gorman said.

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