First it was red, then green and black, then red and green again. For more than a month, something unusually colorful has been flowing into the Northeast wastewater plant.
Workers at an off-site pump station first noticed the “unknown substance” flowing through the pipes in late January, according to a complaint written by the plant operator. He bemoaned that the problem went unaddressed for weeks before samples were collected for testing.
It’s March, and city officials still don’t know what it is. It appears to be a dye flowing into the sewage system, they said. It does not appear to be toxic. But other mysteries remain.
“We still don’t know yet where it’s coming from,” Public Works Administrator Claude Tankerskley said. “But it’s most likely from a printing shop.”
The mysterious colors were revealed in a memo written by plant operator Craven Askew to Mayor Rick Kriseman and every member of the City Council.
St. Petersburg has a history of sewage issues, and Askew played a prominent role in publicizing some of those issues. In 2016 he emailed the mayor claiming city officials should have known that closing the Albert Whitted treatment plant would overwhelm the city’s three remaining plants. A 2014 study that Askew claimed the city buried said as much, and he wanted federal whistle-blower protection for coming forward.
The City Council voted to close Albert Whitted in 2011, and the Kriseman administration carried out the plan in 2015. The rest is history: The city’s overwhelmed sewage system released up to 1 billion gallons of waste from 2015-16 — 200 million gallons of which ended up in Tampa Bay.
It’s costing the city $326 million to fix its sewage system. Now Askew has sent out another memo, and is once again asking for whistle-blower protection.
According to Askew’s March 5 complaint, city officials — despite knowing about the discoloration for weeks — collected the first samples on March 2.
Tankersley, though, said there were no indications of a serious problem: The color would come and go periodically and did not smell. Dangerous pollutants often give off a distinct odor.
“If (city workers) had noticed an odor, they would have been more concerned,” Tankersely said. “Just because you can’t identity what’s in the water, doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
So what is the source of all this? The city doesn’t know yet.
There’s no prohibition against a company dumping industrial chemicals down the drain, he said — even dangerous ones. But the city requires some companies to pretreat their wastewater before it enters the city system to mitigate the danger of certain chemicals.
City officials believe the source is a print shop — they don’t know which — flushing its dyes down the drain. There isn’t a print shop in the area that’s part of the city’s industrial pretreatment program. A company dumping dyes doesn’t have to be in the city’s pretreatment program, Tankersley said, unless the dyes have proved to be toxic.
Askew also complained that he was kept in the dark for weeks about the substance flowing into his plant by higher-ups at the city’s public works department. He said emails show city workers noticed the problem on Jan. 25, but Askew said he wasn’t told until late February.
The Northeast plant had been having water quality issues since November, Askew said, and knowing about the mystery substance at the time could have helped him address the issue faster.
But Tankersley disputed that Askew didn’t know about the colors. The administrator said Askew’s colleagues and supervisors told Takersley they had verbally told Askew about the discoloration. Tankersley said there are no emails to confirm that.
Go to tampabay.com for the full story.