PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — In April, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection assessed around $145 thousand in fines to the City of Panama City for repeated sewage leaks over the last three years.
This month, however, the DEP has reduced the fine amount and city leaders say they’re working hand in hand with the department to build a permanent solution.
“Clearly, we’re moving in a positive direction with the department,” said Mark McQueen, City Manager of Panama City.
It’s not the expected reaction when getting fined in the first place, but McQueen said on Monday that there’s more to it under the surface.
“They are going to allow those fines to be credited toward investment into our sanitary sewer system,” he said.
The initial fines were in reaction to 35 different sewage leaks that happened within the city from 2016 to 2019. McQueen said 25 of those leaks happened after Hurricane Michael.
“This shows the fragility that we have in our sanitary sewer system,” he said.
Since the initial consent order was drafted in April, city leaders have been working with the DEP over the last six months to create a strategy to fix the problems that have existed since long before Hurricane Michael but were exacerbated by the storm.
“The system is in place, 60, 70, 80 years old and it’s just decaying from beneath us,” McQueen said. “What we want to do is rebuild the city’s infrastructure.”
He said the DEP has been a helpful partner, reducing the fines to $124 thousand and allowing the city to use that money toward supplemental equipment for the sewage system.
However, McQueen said that that’s just the start of a total overhaul of the sewage system.
“We have a plan and a strategy to actually rebuild the water and sewer lines of the city,” he said.
He added that $81 million is coming to the city through a state revolving fund through the DEP, as a loan that can be paid over the next 20 years. He said there is other funding that they are seeking through agencies like the Department of Economic Opportunity to help pay for the rest of the project, which will cost between $130 to 200 million.
“All of this has got to be reinvested in and that’s where the city is going,” he said.
He said he’s hoping to get started on the project within the next year, and complete it within the next five years. According to McQueen, there will be much more information coming on the specifics of the plan in the near future.