LARGO — For more than a decade, several projects have been in the works to overhaul the city’s wastewater plant in an effort to cut down on sanitary sewer overflows, accommodate population growth, replace deteriorated infrastructure and make discharged waste cleaner and safer.
City officials say the last of those long and expensive projects is moving forward as staff work to finalize its design and secure a $60.2 million loan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Engineering Services Director Jerald Woloszynski said the biological treatment improvements project, which will provide upgrades to the portion of the plant where bacteria and enzymes break down sewage, has two main goals.
The first is to improve the plant’s ability to remove nitrogen from the waste stream discharged into Old Tampa Bay via Feather Sound.
Nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to harmful and expensive health and environmental conditions, such as algae blooms and fish kills, so the city has been under a DEP administrative order since 2012 to come up with a way to reduce the amount it discharges.
"If there was ever a project that we do here at the city that benefits the environment, this is the project to highlight," Woloszynski said. "Basically, we’re committed to reducing the nitrogen going into Tampa Bay."
The second goal is to replace or rehabilitate aging components of the facility, raise or harden portions of the treatment system that are susceptible to flood damage and storm surge, and enhance safety features for personnel.
Woloszynski said the improvements will be the final piece in fully restoring the plant, because the city is wrapping up the $25 million headworks project, which includes a 5 million-gallon holding tank, and the disinfection and influent pumping project, which includes upgrades to the pumping system and aims to ensure treated effluent meets water quality standards.
"When we complete this new project, basically we’re going to have a fully recapitalized treatment plant that is going to be suitable to operate for the next number of decades," he said.
Those two projects were part of an effort to comply with a DEP consent order requiring the city to reduce the amount of sewage it was discharging into local waterways and cut down on the number of sanitary sewer overflows by the end of January.
Since all three projects affect each other, Woloszynski said staff are working with the DEP to merge the administrative and consent orders to better track them and possibly reset the deadline to make sure the city has adequate time to complete the new project and review the results of its performance.
He hopes that will give the city time to reduce nitrogen in the effluent from its current rate of 27 tons per year to the required 19 tons per year, both of which are based on a five-year rolling average.
Previous estimates to complete the project were between $20 million and $30 million, but Woloszynski said the cost has doubled because construction demand is so high that there’s a scarcity in the availability of large construction firms and labor across the U.S.
"There is so much demand for construction, it has outstripped the amount of capacity that these large construction companies have, let alone the labor workforce to do it," he said. "To complicate it, some of the ambiguities with the tariff situation have put pricing structures in flux to those major nationwide contractors."
The city’s top-ranked contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure South, put out a bid for $52.6 million, which is why staff are applying for a state loan that has been used to pay for three other consent order projects totaling more than $80 million.
"We’re a big customer for them (DEP), so that’s something that works in our favor," said Finance Director Kim Adams during a City Commission work session. "Their job is to get money on the street and also to improve the environment. So, when they can build an $80 million environmental project like they have with us that’s going to improve the environment, they’re all for it."
Adams said the city is looking to borrow about $60.2 million for a 20-year period with a 0.03 percent interest rate.
"We think, conservatively, we could save $10 million and possibly even more than that in funding based on going out for conventional loans," he said.
Woloszynski said there is still a long road ahead in order to make sure everything is done correctly.
Aside from applying for and officially receiving the loan, which will take several months, he said staff still have to negotiate the final guaranteed maximum price with the contractor. The City Commission will then award the contract sometime this fall, and when the project eventually breaks ground, it will likely take about two years to complete.
"We’re really … committed to making sure that we’re doing the right thing, not just because we have an administrative order, but doing the right thing to reduce this nitrogen because the waters of Tampa Bay and where Tampa Bay flows to benefits everyone," he said.