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Tampa City Council rejects further funding for PURE wastewater proposal

A woman in a blue dress named Jean Duncan speaks in support of the PURE program in front of a large chamber with the Tampa City Council
Sky Lebron
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WUSF Public Media
Jean Duncan, the City of Tampa's Infrastructure and Mobility Administrator, speaks in support of further funding for the PURE project.

The project, which would have repurposed up to 50 million gallons of wastewater per day, got strong pushback from residents and environmentalists.

The city of Tampa's PURE project took another blow Thursday as the city council rejected an additional round of funding for research.

Heavy pushback from city residents and environmental groups played a part in the rejection.

"If there's 998 people in opposition to this, there might be two in support,” Tampa Councilman Guido Maniscalco said. “At least in my experience, talking to people in the public and neighbor associations."

The project would repurpose up to 50 million gallons of wastewater per day, which could go into the local aquifer, river systems, and even back into the drinking water supply.

It received about $1.1 million for research in February, and project representatives say only about $250,000 has been used.

Text on top of a background that is a wide shot of a waterway
City of Tampa
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Logo for the city's PURE program proposal

The council rejected another round of funding that would have supplied another roughly $1 million for studying the potential impact of the proposal.

“This is by virtue of what we see from the public a very, very hard sell,” Councilman Luis Viera said. “It is. And I don't think it's because it's complicated. I think it's because it's something that the public has shown that they're against, and I think that's obvious.”

Environmentalists have publicly voiced their opposition to the project in recent weeks, saying injecting the wastewater into the drinking water supply or back into a river would harm people and wildlife.

“We have never thought that it was necessary to drink wastewater,” said Gary Gibbons, the vice chair of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club. “And everything that they have proposed in the PURE project has resulted in this water that's going to have some level of these contaminants in it, either being put into the aquifer — which is a horrible idea — or putting into the reservoir to mix with the water that they're pulling out now to purify, to drink.”

While the treated wastewater would meet state and federal standards, environmentalists such as Gibbons say traces of pharmaceuticals and other understudied contaminants and nutrients will still be in the water, and the science isn’t out yet to confirm if those can have long-lasting impacts.

City officials pushing for the project to move forward say they’re taking resident and environmental group concerns into consideration.

“Safety is the utmost top priority for us, of course with reliability as well,” said Jean Duncan, the city’s Infrastructure and Mobility administrator.

Phil Compton with the Friends of the Hillsborough River said environmental groups have sent a list of 17 questions directly to Mayor Jane Castor related to the potential dangers of the project, but they haven’t received a response.

He said the rejection of further funding is a win in their fight.

“We hope that they will finally take us seriously because they have just really laughed at us behind our back and given us lip service,” Compton said.

A state law passed last year requires Florida cities to stop releasing wastewater into water bodies within the next 10 years.

City officials in favor of the project list the law as one of the reasons for the PURE project proposal, but the environmental groups say similar proposals have come to the city years before the law passed, such as the failed "toilet to tap" program.

“PURE is a zombie,” Compton said. “PURE has reemerged time and time again, over the last 20 years, under different labels.”

Apart from unanimously motioning to reject the additional funding, Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak pushed for the remaining roughly $800,000 in funding from February to go toward answering the resident’s main concerns, and figuring out what the best-and-worst-case scenarios are if the city were to continue using the same methods they’ve been using for years.

She and the council also unanimously voted to hold a workshop where environmentalist groups can speak with the project leaders and present their own ideas sometime early next year.

“I don't want to fund this anymore,” Hurtak said. “To me, this is it. This is done. If we need to do something different, we'll deal with it in a different way. So I don't anticipate approving any more funding for PURE as it stands.”

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