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    Desalination plant has new deadline

    Tampa Bay Water agrees on May 30 and $50,000 more, but the contractor will pay if the deadline is missed again.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 28, 2003


    CLEARWATER -- Tampa Bay Water's two biggest projects have fallen months behind schedule, but the utility's board cut a deal with a contractor Monday to ensure that at least one is finished by the time it's needed most.

    The state's largest wholesale water supplier, Tampa Bay Water is building the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere in Apollo Beach and creating a 15-billion-gallon reservoir in southern Hillsborough County.

    The plant was supposed to be finished this month, but now its completion has been pushed back to May 30 under terms of a deal the utility board approved Monday. Meanwhile, heavy rain stalled work on the reservoir, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses with no end in sight.

    "This is going to be very tough," Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell said of the reservoir delay. "We're working diligently on it."

    Problems surrounding the $110-million desal plant, designed to take brackish water from Tampa Bay and turn it into 25-million gallons of drinking water a day, were easier to resolve.

    The plant was supposed to be completed by Friday. For months, the company building it, Covanta, told Tampa Bay Water officials that construction might be completed early.

    But three weeks ago, Covanta, which also will operate the completed plant, notified Tampa Bay Water that it needed 123 more days and $1.8-million to finish. Extensive negotiations resulted Monday in new deadlines and extra money for Covanta -- and penalties if the company is late.

    Covanta must begin producing 3-million gallons of water a day by Feb. 6. If it misses that deadline, Covanta must give the utility twice as much free water as was lost. Missing the deadline by three days, for example, would cost 18-million gallons of water. Covanta will charge $1,250 for every million gallons of water it produces.

    The penalties escalate with each deadline, peaking May 30, when the plant is to be completed. If not, Covanta will owe Tampa Bay Water $32,500 a day plus any fines. Tampa Bay Water needs the plant on line by then because it is the start of the dry season.

    Covanta settled its monetary claim for $500,000 instead of $1.8-million. The extra money is well within the project's budget.

    Although board members approved the new deal unanimously, they wondered how Tampa Bay Water was caught off guard.

    "With all the consultants we paid, how is it that we weren't made aware of this sooner?" asked board member Ted Schrader, chairman of the Pasco County Commission. Maxwell said the problems appeared to be "an inside thing" between Covanta and one of its subcontractors and would not have been obvious to utility officials.

    The Feb. 6 deadline will "be the most difficult date to meet," said Scott Whitney, senior vice president of Covanta Water Systems, a division of Covanta Energy of New Jersey. "We're working overtime and double shifts."

    The cause of the reservoir delay was easier to explain. Heavy rains in November and December, particularly on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, dumped so much water on the reservoir site that it blew out retention ponds, washed away an access road and backed up local creeks into the site.

    The downpour overwhelmed the precautions that the contractor had set up to prevent dirty runoff from contaminating the clear creeks, and that has led to notices of violations from both the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

    The contractor, Barnard Construction of Montana, cannot move until Tampa Bay Water comes up with a way to dispose of the standing water without further contaminating the creeks.

    As a result, Barnard's 66 earth-moving machines, which should be digging up 13-million cubic yards of dirt to create the reservoir, have been idle for nearly three months at a cost of $500,000 a month, said Jonathan Kennedy, the utility's director of operations and facilities.

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