Romano: Forget the sewers, St. Pete has a crisis of trust

Signs such as this one at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg were common in 2016 at the height of the city's sewage crisis. Wastewater spills have not been as common since then, but the city still has a problem when it comes to public perception with sewage issues. [LARA CERRI]
Signs such as this one at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg were common in 2016 at the height of the city's sewage crisis. Wastewater spills have not been as common since then, but the city still has a problem when it comes to public perception with sewage issues. [LARA CERRI]
Published April 23 2018
Updated April 23 2018

Imagine what kind of spin the world might have endured had St. Petersburg sewer officials been asked to explain the final Hindenburg flight.

The landing, city leaders acknowledged, was bumpy.

Some passengers chose to disembark before the airship reached ground.

The return voyage might be delayed.

Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair. After all, the Hindenburg only crashed once.

St. Pete’s latest sewer adventure, on the other hand, has the whiff of familiarity.

There’s a malfunction at a plant; hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated wastewater escape; conflicting reports suggest the water might have reached Tampa Bay, but the city insists nothing could be further from the truth.

And you know what?

The city’s version may be entirely accurate. I’ll even allow that it probably is.

It’s just St. Pete seems to be lacking in the benefit-of-the-doubt department these days. And that’s a problem manufactured entirely on its own.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Pete says discharge never reached the bay. It's own report says otherwise.

We are now about three years into the sewer crisis — although its origins stretch back decades — and I would wager the lingering public perception has nothing to do with injection wells, plant capacity or the ever-enthralling definition of partially treated wastewater.

This is a crisis of trust.

There were too many times in the early stages of this mess when the city chose to deny, ignore or obfuscate. Words were parsed, and details were hidden to keep bad news out of the headlines.

The perception was that solving the problem was not as important as avoiding the blame.

City leaders would argue they have come a long way since those early days, but they still don’t understand that they have no margin for error. Not in terms of spills, but in faith.

And this latest episode has only made it more obvious.

There was a spill of 266,000 gallons at the Northeast plant on Jan. 18 caused by a combination of cold weather, faulty instruments and contractor error. Okay, stuff happens. A spokesman initially said none of the spill could have reached waters that empty into the bay, but later allowed that it was a possibility.

An initial report written by the plant’s chief operator said it was likely some of the water reached a pond that leads into Tampa Bay. His supervisors deleted that observation.

Weeks later, City Council members were told unequivocally that the spill had been contained. Except an independent report written by another city staffer also suggested there was a strong possibility that wastewater had reached a pond that feeds into the bay.

Count that up, and you find three different instances where a city employee said it was either possible or probable that some of the spill made its way into Tampa Bay.

And yet the only public statements before City Council declared the opposite.

This doesn’t mean there was a conspiracy. It doesn’t mean the other staffers were right, and public works administrator Claude Tankersley was wrong when he addressed the council.

But it does suggest officials are still bending over backward to put a positive spin on every incident.

Past investigations have already determined the city was grossly negligent in allowing the sewer system to fall into disrepair and become overloaded in 2015-17.

Let’s not start 2018 with the same smelly mess.

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