City secures $14M for sewer plant upgrade

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By the end of 2024, the city of Apalachicola will be operating a wastewater treatment plan better able to withstand hurricane-force winds and flooding, at a lower cost for operations and maintenance.

That’s because the city is slated to receive $14 million in federal funds through the Protecting Florida Together grant program administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

At a Nov. 8 press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis, joined by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton, and Chief Science Officer Dr. Mark Rains, announced awards of $481 million for 103 wastewater and springs projects throughout the state.

“The project will ultimately increase system resiliency and efficiency and reduce operational and maintenance costs for years to come,” wrote the city’s finance director, Leo Bebeau, in an August grant application that updated a Nov. 2020 narrative that had been submitted by former Mayor Kevin Begos, who passed away in June.

Commissioner Anita Grove assisted with information concerning the bay and surrounding environment, and the city’s status as an Area of Economic Concern status. Dewberry Engineering provided an updated engineer's cost estimate that reflected the increases in costs and materials in the nine months since Nov. 2020.

The two-year, three-phase project will replace the existing headworks and reactors with all new tanks and equipment placed above the high-risk AE 12 flood zone into zone X, considered moderate to low risk. This area, about 100 yards away and about seven feet higher in elevation, lies between the existing sequencing batch reactor (SBR) and operations building and the power line easement that crosses the property.

The SBR now used in the system was purchased used over 25 years ago from the city of Tampa.

 

“During Hurricane Michael, the (city’s) wastewater plant was shut down because of flood vulnerability. Storm surge entered the plant grounds damaging electrical and pump infrastructure,” Bebeau wrote. “The (plant) had to be shut down during Hurricane Michael, causing sanitary sewer service for the entire community to cease for several days. The plant sustained damage (and) because of the site’s proximity to the waterfront, vulnerability will continue to increase due to rising sea levels and future hurricane impacts. Unless this project is implemented, the (city) and the natural environment risk catastrophic flooding and sewage spillage during future disaster events.”

The application also notes that “Apalachicola citizens (are) spending millions of dollars towards oyster farming and trying to rejuvenate the aquaculture industry in the bay. Relocating (the plant) would lessen the risk and could save years of work for the aquaculture industry.”

The application also noted that in 2017, the city completed an analysis to determine its vulnerability to storm surge and sea level rise. “The results of that study illustrated the alarming vulnerability of the town’s critical facilities, infrastructure, property and historic commercial buildings,” Bebeau wrote. “The model results indicated that a high inundation scenario could impact more than 116 acres or 11 percent of the entire city.”

The new facility will meet Class I reliability, will be designed for Category 5 hurricane force winds, and will have a design life of at least 40 years with provision for replacement of certain mechanical motors and equipment.

By replacing the headworks, which were deemed in eminent threat of failure, the city will complete all of the conditions in DEP’s consent order, and enable the city to qualify for a greater range of future state dollars.

The new components will be built while the existing facility operates and will include new headworks with screening, screening washer/compactor, high efficiency grit removal with grit washer/classifier, offline flow equalization, biological treatment with new SBR tanks and equipment, and post-SBR equalization.

The city’s engineering firm, Dewberry Engineers, Inc., has developed plans that allow for a year of planning and design, and then a year of construction. The project would have a proposed start date of Jan. 1, 2023 and estimated end date of Dec. 31, 2024, allowing a full two-year timeframe for completion.

In an email, Bebeau wrote that as of Sept. 2020, the city had water and sewer debt of $6.44 million, net of more than a half-million dollars in savings that were achieved after Begos orchestrated a new loan at 0 percent interest.

During the year ended Sept. 30, 2021, the city made payments of about $512,000 on this debt, leaving a current balance of $5.93 million, Bebeau wrote.

The city’s recently adopted 2021-22 budget will collect approximately $615,000 in charges for the SUF (sewer user fee). “As the SUF was adopted to pay this debt, it should be expected for this fee to continue,” he wrote. “Please note that a portion of this debt will not be paid off until 2043.”

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