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Environmental activists criticise Tampa's latest wastewater reuse project

City council members are set to vote on whether to move forward with the PURE project Thursday.

TAMPA, Fla. — It's a familiar debate in the city of Tampa. 

For years, politicians, environmental activists and taxpayers have debated what to do with the roughly 50 million gallons per day of treated wastewater that gets dumped into Tampa Bay.

The city of Tampa once pushed a water reuse project dubbed "toilet to tap," which was highly criticized for being unsafe, risky, and unnecessary.

Starting in 2020, the city unveiled a new plan known as PURE, which stands for Purify Usable Resources for the Environment. Opponents of the project say it remains concerning for public health and the environment.

"Really sounded like a rebranding of tap to us," said Nancy Stevens, the Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club.

Leaders with the city of Tampa argue that PURE is just an opportunity to explore options and research new ways to best use Tampa's wastewater.

"We’ve expanded the scope by looking at many options," said Whit Remer, the city's sustainability and resilience officer.

On the city's website, it says some of the options include:

  • Pumping water down into the aquifer, which is called recharging the aquifer, and withdrawing it during the dry season — also called recovery of the water.
  • Adding the water created during the PURE process to the Hillsborough River Reservoir.
  • Selling reclaimed water to another water utility.
  • Sending reclaimed water deep underground using deep well injection.
  • Treating reclaimed water to drinking water standards and adding it directly into the drinking water supply.
  • Adding treated reclaimed water to the base of the Hillsborough River Dam to maintain healthy river flows to the Lower Hillsborough River

Environmental activists, including the Sierra Club, say the whole project is unnecessary and too risky because of so many questions surrounding the potential harm to the Hillsborough River's wildlife and human health.

"Using wastewater should be one of the last things we do because it’s very expensive to make it safe," said Stevens, who added the idea is so new that there are not even standards or regulations. The city says public health is a top priority.

"Just because there’s not either a regulation or there's a regulation with a standard that may or may not be acceptable to some stakeholders, we’re constantly working with the regulators to understand those implications and go above and beyond," Remer said.

On Thursday, Tampa City Council will vote on whether to move forward with PURE while the city continues to gather information and assessments on the options.

Councilman Bill Carlson opposes the project.

"We need to convince the mayor and the water department this is a terrible idea. It’s not safe for the environment, humans, we don’t want to be experimented on. If they’re going to do this, we need proven technology," Carlson said.

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