In need of more space and upgraded facilities to handle its myriad responsibilities, the City of St. Petersburg recently awarded $8.2 million for construction of a new Water Resources Environmental Quality Lab, a facility that could withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
St. Petersburg City Council recently approved a bid from LEMA Construction and Developers to build a new environmental testing facility, approximately 11,643 square feet in size, just east of the current Water Resources administrative building at 1635 3rd Ave. N. The existing lab will remain fully operational during construction.
John Stanley, environmental compliance manager, said the current lab was built in 1990, before modern building codes, and is showing its age.
“It’s 32 years old, and they started having some issues with it,” he said. “Primarily, leaky roofs, insufficient HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) … and one of the things that’s important to get accurate results is to a have a controlled environment in terms of temperature, humidity and things like that.”
Stanley explained that the city operates three water reclamation facilities, a drinking water plant and several distribution lines for both the sewer and drinking water systems. His department ensures all systems meet stringent federal regulatory requirements, which have recently increased in scope. He said the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan resulted in more testing for harmful metals like copper and lead.
The current lab features a staff of 12 that work seven days a week and analyze about 40,000 tests annually. While their job functions are critical to the safety and well-being of the city, Stanley said the public only notices their work if something goes wrong or a contamination order is issued.
“They’re proud of what they do,” he said. “It’s a very dedicated staff, and they kind of work in the shadows.”
Stanley added that the facility is responsible for testing St. Petersburg’s surface water and the surrounding beaches. It also assists Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties’ water quality and environmental programs. The water resources department oversees industrial water quality and dedicates a group to keeping local restaurants’ oil and grease waste from blocking the city’s sewer system.
“Having an internal laboratory enables us to get quicker and more accurate results,” he said.
Stanley said that in 2017, a consulting firm recommended expanding the current lab from 6,000 to 8,000 square feet due to a lack of space needed for an increasing range of functions. The new lab increases that recommendation by about 50%, allowing to continue expansion. He said another objective was building a facility that could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, noting the importance of the lab remaining fully functional to test and monitor water quality through a catastrophic storm.
The new $8.2 million facility will even feature a commercial kitchen, said Stanley, as part of a conscientious effort to ensure the water resources department remains self-sufficient during a major hurricane. The contractor will also install new underground utilities.
“Part of it is having a purpose-built facility that is going to help us meet our requirements,” he said. “But it is also … to better serve the community we protect.
“Having our whole group together (in the new facility) is going to make it more efficient.”
St. Pete-based LEMA Construction & Developers was the lowest responsible and responsive bidder for the project, narrowly edging out Bandes Construction. In background documents, the city also cited LEMA’s experience constructing similar labs for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Florida Fish and Wildlife Hatchery and Advent Health as a deciding factor.
According to the city agreement, the contractor will begin work within 10 days after receiving a written Notice to Proceed. The city expects the facility’s completion within 340 days after the notice, although Stanley noted that timeline seemed optimistic considering supply chain issues.