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Desal plant misses another deadline

By today, it was supposed to start producing 3-million gallons of water a day.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2003


Another deadline has come and gone, and Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant still isn't ready.

Beginning today, the $110-million desal plant in Apollo Beach was supposed to start producing at least 3-million gallons of drinking water per day.

That isn't happening, but water officials say they aren't worried about this because:

-- The region does not need that extra drinking water immediately. The treated seawater won't really be needed until the dry season in a couple of months.

-- The plant is expected to start treating water within two weeks.

-- The missed deadline means that the company building and operating the plant will eventually be required to give Tampa Bay Water several million gallons of water for free.

"Because of all the rain we received from the El Nino event, we don't really need the seawater desal to start up immediately," said Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell. "In fact, we're advantaged by the delay."

Tampa Bay Water, the state's largest wholesale water supplier, is building the biggest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere in southern Hillsborough County. The plant will treat brackish water from Tampa Bay and should eventually produce 25-million gallons of drinking water per day.

The plant was supposed to be finished in January. But the company building it, Covanta, recently said it needs more time and money to finish.

After extensive negotiations, Covanta and Tampa Bay Water cut a deal that resulted in new deadlines and extra money for Covanta and penalties if the company is late.

Because it missed today's deadline, Covanta must eventually give Tampa Bay Water twice as much free water as was lost, or 6-million gallons per day. Missing the deadline by 10 days, for example, would cost Covanta 60-million gallons of water. Covanta will charge $1,250 for every million gallons of water it produces.

The plant is essentially constructed, but Covanta says it needs more time to refine a process that removes sediment from seawater before treatment so that the sediment does not clog the equipment.

Ken Herd, engineering manager for Tampa Bay Water, said protecting the public's investment is key.

"What we're talking about is taking a few additional days to ensure the longevity of this public water supply facility," he said.

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