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Joe Henderson: Polluted water in St. Pete leaves little room for mistake

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

We love the water around here. We boat on it, haul fish from it, swim in it, and build houses that provide spectacular views of it. Water is such a big deal around here that many people identify us not by the actual places where we live, but by the catchall name of Tampa Bay.

So while having local waterways polluted with millions of gallons of untreated sewage would be a major story anywhere, it is a catastrophe here. And that is what we have, stretching from St. Petersburg into Pasco County.

It has been called a “spill,” but that’s a little like calling the Johnstown Flood a “leak.” Fingers are being pointed in all directions, and we can only assume follow-up investigations into this will narrow down the culprits. A mess of this size almost certainly was a group effort.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday on Craven R. Askew, chief operator of the Northwest sewage plant in St. Petersburg. Askew asked St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman for whistleblower protection after publicly revealing a two-year-old study that warned something like that could happen.

In 2011, the city council voted to close the plant as a cost-saving measure. Askew had warned the three remaining treatment plants could be overwhelmed by the kind of rain that accompanied Hurricane Hermine two weeks ago.

That’s just what happened, as the remaining plants couldn’t handle the load and about 150 million gallons of sewage were loosed on city streets and waterways.

There were warning signs even before then, though. There were other, smaller spills that should have sounded an alarm, but apparently did not.

Kriseman, who took office in 2014, says he was unaware of Askew’s concerns. Well, Kriseman and everyone else knows about them now, so once the finger-pointing and backside-covering stops, the question becomes what the plan will be to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Hermine was a modest storm as tropical systems go, and yet the areas along the coast from Pasco and Pinellas were belted by widespread flooding and this wastewater nightmare. What would happen if there was a Category 3 or higher storm that took the path Hermine did?

Experts have been warning for years that all the land hugging the waters in our area could experience a Katrina-like disaster in the aftermath of a major hurricane. Hermine, comparatively, was a little puppy.

Damage and flooding would be unavoidable in that case, but there are steps the most vulnerable cities — and St. Petersburg qualifies — can take now that could mitigate the impact. I wonder if council members would have found another way to save money in 2011 if they could have looked into a crystal ball and foreseen what their pound-foolish approach would unleash.

Water is this area’s No. 1 resource. It forms the backbone of tourism and our quality of life, so let this be a lesson to all the officials and agencies charged with keeping that water clean. If you don’t get this one right, whatever else you do won’t matter much.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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