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Desal proposal receives early public criticism

Homeowners present a petition to Tampa Bay Water with concerns over sinkholes, dirty water and their home values.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002


CLEARWATER -- A plan to pump brackish water from wells to a desalination plant may be years from reality, but some residents who live near the proposed well sites hope the project never gets off the ground.

About two dozen homeowners showed up at Tampa Bay Water's board meeting Monday to present a petition with 1,500 signatures and voice concerns about sinkholes, dirty water and shrinking home values.

"I am very upset with this desalination program," said Laura Nipper, who lives behind Starkey Elementary School and near one of the proposed well sites. "I was under the impression that the water was going to be taken from the gulf, not from under my house."

Tampa Bay Water wants to produce about 6-million gallons of water per day from 14 wells that would supply the brackish water. Brackish water has less salt content than seawater and is cheaper to clean.

The water would be pumped through pipelines to a desalination plant, which would be built in the area of 102nd Avenue N and 66th Street in Pinellas Park. The water wouldn't be ready for delivery until spring 2006.

Next month, the utility will start testing the brackish water at five different locations. The tests, which take about two months, will examine water quality and geologic conditions.

"What we already understand about this area based on our previous testing is that it can support a 6-million-gallon-a-day brackish water supply," project manager Mike Coates said.

Tampa Bay officials have trimmed a list of about 40 potential well sites to 17 preferred sites and 11 alternate sites. They are on public and private properties in an area south of East Bay Drive, north of Park Boulevard, east of Lake Seminole and west of 66th Street. The locations include churches, public schools, Lake Seminole Park, Bardmoor Golf Course and sections along the CSX railroad track. The wells will be about 300 feet deep.

The project is part of Tampa Bay Water's efforts to meet the area's long-term drinking needs. In Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County, a desal plant capable of generating 25-million gallons a day of tap water will start delivering drinking water early next year. And officials are pursuing a second, 25-million-gallon desalination plant, which is planned for a site where the Anclote River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tampa Bay Water supplies drinking water to St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey, and to Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Many who spoke against the brackish water project said the drilling would cause sinkholes on or near their properties. "Once you start this drilling, you're going to let the genie out of the bottle and it will be too late to plug it," said Carl Crisp, who lives near one of the proposed well sites.

Geologic conditions make the mid- and south-Pinellas areas less prone to sinkholes, Coates said.

But what "if we're wrong and sinkholes start?" asked Rick Baker, St. Petersburg mayor and Tampa Bay Water board member.

If the pumping did cause a problem, Coates said, the utility would pay for repairs. Also, if the production adversely impacted private wells that existed before the project, the agency would repair or replace the wells.

Others fear contaminants from the Science, Technology and Research Center property could seep into the well sites. Triggers for nuclear bombs once were made at the facility on the corner of Bryan Dairy and Belcher roads. The devices have been gone for years, but cleaning solvents and oils used to manufacture them linger underground in a corner of the 100-acre property. A project is under way to remove those chemicals.

"Do you know where you people are pumping this water from?" Carl Westberg asked. "Reverse osmosis...sure it takes out the saltwater, but does it take out the contaminants that might kills us?"

Coates told Tampa Bay board members that he had been assured by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is in charge of the cleanup, that the pollutants are in a contained area. "We don't believe that our production wells would be at risk," he said.

Coates also told the board that homeowners who live near potential well sites shouldn't worry about their properties declining in value. "We simply aren't aware of reduced property values in other areas of municipal production," he said.

The permit application is scheduled to go before the board next summer. If approved, it will move to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, where review will take up to 18 months. If a permit is granted, construction could begin in late 2004 or early 2005.

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