ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – 8 On Your Side has obtained a one-page email that ultimately helped trigger a state criminal investigation and shed light on the City of St. Petersburg’s biggest environmental scandal ever.
In that email, a city sewer plant operator, Craven Askew, unloads a torrent of alleged misdeeds on Michelle Riley, who works in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Inspector General’s office. “I would like to give you a little history on what the City of St. Petersburg is trying to do,” Askew writes. “I would like to use my rights at as whistleblower.”
Askew highlights a now familiar litany of allegations against some of his bosses. He cites misdirection and outright deceit perpetrated by St. Petersburg’s Public Works Department. Askew explains how the city shut down the Albert Whitted sewage treatment plant, despite studies indicating the danger of sewage overflows during major weather events. Sewage did overwhelm the city’s Southwest treatment plant.
“I have recently found documents in the city system that indicated the city knew about the hydraulic issues at Southwest but continues to leave Albert Whitted down,” Askew wrote.
“There was a culture in that department of intentionally misleading council,” St. Petersburg City Council Member Steve Kornell said after 8 On Your Side showed him Askew’s whistle-blowing email to the DEP.
“Craven Askew is 100 percent right that closing Albert Whitted was the wrong thing to do at the wrong time. I reached that conclusion in 2011,” Kornell said.
Kornell said he and Wengay Newton were the only two council members who voted to keep the plant open in 2011 based on concerns raised in other studies long before Askew went public with his allegations. “The bottom line is if three other council members had joined me and Wengay Newton in 2011 we wouldn’t have to reopen Albert Whitted because wouldn’t have closed it in the first place,” Kornell said.
It’s not clear how much the city spent to decommission the Albert Whitted sewage treatment facility, but officials now estimate it will cost $11 million to get it running again in order to handle excess capacity generated by future storms. The goal is to prevent spilling more sewage into Tampa Bay and other waterways.
Askew cites a 30-million gallon spill in August 2015, in addition to another 100 million gallons spilled during heavy rain events in August and September of this year. He expresses his frustration with those who failed to act on his repeated warnings about the likelihood of such spills after Albert Whitted’s closure.
“I sent the city an email stating my concerns about public safety is at risk,” Askew told the DEP in his email. “The city is allowing the department (public works) to spend more money and increase sewer funding rates due to the sewage spill which could have been prevented if they left Albert Whitted up and running.”
“He’s absolutely right about that,” Kornell said after reading Askew’s email. “I think he had a lot of courage for speaking out.”
There is currently a city investigation underway based on Askew’s allegations. Two of Askew’s bosses, Engineering Director Tom Gibson and Water Resources Director Steave Leavitt, are on unpaid suspensions.
The Florida DEP has launched a criminal investigation and there have been Congressional calls for a federal investigation by the EPA.
No matter how those investigations settle out, Kornell insists there ought to be a dramatic change in how the St. Petersburg City Council handles internal city business in the future. “I think what council can do is when staff gives us misinformation, half information or lies to us, hold them accountable,” he said. “Don’t approve things if that’s how it’s going to be.”