A long-delayed park and stormwater project in Pensacola will move forward after a contentious vote Tuesday by the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners.
Commissioners approved giving $200,000 to the City of Pensacola to help fund clean up of a hazardous chemical plume beneath a public park currently under construction in downtown Pensacola. The city will need to come up with another $116,000 in order to fund the total estimated cost of $316,00 to fully remediate the plume.
The Government Street Regional Stormwater Pond is currently under construction at Corinne Jones Park in Pensacola’s Tanyard neighborhood, just north of the vacant 19-acre site formerly occupied by the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant and purchased by Quint and Rishy Studer earlier this year. When completed, the project is set to be similar in size and scope to the city’s popular Admiral Mason Park project, which received a Project Excellence Award in 2012 from the Florida Stormwater Association.
The project centers around the construction of a 2.75-acre stormwater pond on the park’s existing grounds. Shortly after beginning construction of the project this spring, engineers discovered hazardous chemicals in the groundwater that revealed high levels of contamination.
The contaminants stem from the former Escambia County Mosquito Control facility at 603 West Romana Street, which ceased operations in the years following Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
A 2006 FEMA report following Hurricane Ivan documented the damage to the facility, originally built in 1956.
Throughout its more than two decades of operation, the facility contained thousands of gallons of toxic insecticides such as methoprene and permethrin, used throughout the county to combat mosquitos. The FEMA report found the site was prone to flooding and chemical spills.
“The nearby wastewater treatment plant has failed on multiple occasions,” the federal report stated. “Flooding the neighborhood with sewage and overtopping the chemical secondary containment systems, thereby causing the release of mosquito control chemicals into the environment.”
In 2005, the Romana Street property was declared a Brownfield Redevelopment site and a remediation and cleanup plan was developed and approved by the county and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Since then, more than $1.4 million has been spent on remediation of the property, which is expected to be complete by 2022. Under the plan, the county is expected to spend nearly $500,000 more in cleaning up the property through 2022.
At Tuesday’s special meeting, commissioners debated for nearly two hours and sat through several motions before voting to partially fund the cleanup.
Commissioner Wilson Robertson, the only commissioner to have served on the Board of County Commissioners while the mosquito control facility was in operation, affirmed his support for the funding.
“I can take responsibility for some of this stuff,” Robertson said, referring to when the county facility was spilling contaminants into the ground. “We have our signature on it. It’s ours.”
“If we don’t do this, we could have this go to a place we don’t want it to go to,” Robertson added. “My belief is it’s our responsibility to clean this up.”
Conversely, Commissioners Lumon May and Doug Underhill debated whether spending the full $316,000 to the city to clean up the contamination underneath the park was a proper use of county funds.
“We have spent an enormous amount of money already on this project,” said Commissioner Doug Underhill. “I would absolutely take my kids to play in that park.”
“I’m not opposed to their plans,” Underhill reiterated. “This is a very logical use of that property for that gentrifying neighborhood.”
Underhill stated the county should not be forced to reimburse the city for what he says is a last ditch effort to save a city project.
“We have half a million dollars each year to spend on environmental priorities in Escambia County,” said Underhill. “Priorities like the Omnivest site and Wedgewood neighborhood,” referring to other contaminated areas in Escambia County. “If I have $500,000 to spend, I want to spend money that will stop people from getting sick.”
With funding for the clean up the groundwater approved, the city will move to resume development of the park.
Upon completion, the project will incorporate landscaping, walking paths, benches, and LED lighting, as well as the addition of a new basketball court and playground equipment. The project would also include the reconstruction of Government Street between Coyle and Clubbs streets.
The completed pond would capture and treat stormwater runoff from 40 acres in downtown Pensacola that currently discharges untreated runoff directly into Pensacola Bay. In addition to improving water quality, the pond will is expected to serve as a wetland habitat for a variety of birds and other species.
The original cost of the project was expected to be $2.1 million and funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant which the city received in late 2013. After bids for construction of the park came in higher than expected three times, the project was finally awarded to Utility Service Company of Gulf Breeze, Fla. for $3 million. The city has spent $374,644 redesigning the park plans to reduce the impact of the plume.
With the additional funding to clean up contamination beneath the project, the total cost will top more than $3.7 million, nearly double the original estimate. Completion of the project was expected in November, but that will likely be delayed several months more due to cleanup of the contaminated groundwater.