As part of WUWF’s look back at Hurricane Ivan on its 10th anniversary, it turns out the storm did lead the way towards replacing Pensacola’s water treatment plant, which had been in service since 1937.
Ivan’s 100-plus mile and hour winds and storm surges of up to 15 feet mortally wounded the Main Street Treatment plant. A power outage knocked it off line for three and a half days -- resulting in a toxic brew of storm water, storm surge and raw sewage flooding parts of downtown Pensacola.
“That was an interesting story from my prospective,” said ECUA Executive Director Steve Sorrel. “I was just a damn Yankee coming from the North a couple of years before that. In the North we didn’t have hurricanes. So I got a rude awakening.”
Sorrell says although the plant began operation when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, it was still viable in serving the Pensacola area.
Plans already were underway for upgrades at the plant – dubbed “Old Stinky” -- in areas that had fallen behind the specifications set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Ivan moved those needs to the front burner.
As part of the community-wide cleanup after Ivan, ECUA officials got the plant up and running, but also decided to take care of two problems simultaneously. They began developing a plan to build a new, state-of-the-art facility -- and as far from harm’s way as possible.
“The (Main St.) plant elevation was probably about seven feet above sea level, and it was inundated with a wall of water probably in the 10-15 foot range ultimately,” Sorrell said. “We looked at 21 different locations, and out in Cantonment, near the old Solutia plant, was the right location. We bought about 2,100 acres. That site is about 110 ft. above sea level, so we’re not going to have flooding issues anymore.”
In April of 2008, groundbreaking took place for a new lift station across from the Main St. Plant, which would feed the new facility. Construction of the plant itself was scheduled for about two years at a cost of $316 million, to build a place that would treat up to 25 million gallons of effluent daily. Funding for the project came from a number of sources – including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We received about $134 million from FEMA,” said Sorrell, “We got about $25 million from the state of Florida, $7 million from Escambia County, $19.5 million from the city (of Pensacola). The rest was made up by ECUA ratepayers through a rate increase for 20 years.”
“Usually, a project like that will take 20 years; we built that project in five years,” said Sorrell.
Not only was the project finished ahead of schedule, it came in about $30 million under budget. The remaining funds were used to upgrade the larger lift stations around the service area.
Testing at the new plant began in August, 2010. Along with being well inland in Cantonment to avoid storm surge the new facility – dubbed the “Central Water Reclamation Facility” – was designed to withstand 190 mph winds – equivalent to a Category-5 hurricane.
After the new plant went online to stay, demolition of Old Stinky began. By 2012, the site – now 19 acres of green grass -- was ready to be marketed.
In July of last year, the ECUA Board voted 4-1 to accept a second, $7.6 million offer from Houston, Texas developer Aaron Wiese’s (WEE-zee) H-T Land Company. But the deal fell through a short time later amid media reports of a DUI conviction against Wiese.
For now the site remains empty, save for a small area that serves as a parking lot for Pensacola Blue Wahoo games at nearby Bayfront Stadium. But ECUA Executive Director Steve Sorrell remains optimistic.
“What we’re trying to do….is sell that property to a person or a company that’s going to enhance downtown Pensacola,” said Sorrell. “We don’t want to just sell it to somebody who’s going to come in and flip it and build some undesirable building or site there. So we’re working very hard, we just haven’t found the right person yet. But it’s just a matter of time.”