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Desal plant to miss second deadline

Tampa Bay Water threatens to fire the company that vowed to have the plant running seven months ago.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2003

Tampa Bay Water, faced with yet another delay at its $110-million desalination plant, threatened Thursday to ditch the company that was supposed to have it running more than seven months ago.

Covanta, the New Jersey company that built the plant on the banks of Tampa Bay, was supposed to have it ready Jan. 31. After a series of problems, a new deadline of Sept. 30 was set. On Thursday, Covanta said it won't meet that deadline, either.

"If Covanta can't get it right, we'll find somebody who can," said Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for the wholesale utility, which provides water for 2-million customers.

Covanta vice president Scott Whitney brushed aside such tough talk as "a little bit of brinksmanship." He predicted the two sides would come to terms soon: "There's too much at stake here for this not to get worked out."

Tampa Bay Water officials seemed less concerned last month when Covanta said it could not get the plant running until the end of September. As long as the facility was running by the time the summer rains waned, they said, everything would be fine.

But now they are steamed, though they are still not in dire need of the water from the plant.

Whitney conceded that the situation is "very frustrating at this point." He compared the problem to "buying a new car for $20,000 and you can't get it to work because of a $2 fuel filter."

In this case, there are 10,000 filters, tightly woven membranes to screen salt out of seawater.

The desal plant in Apollo Beach is supposed to take 40-million gallons of seawater from Tampa Bay every day and force it through the membranes to produce 25-million gallons of drinkable freshwater and 15-million gallons of brine.

But the plant, the largest in the nation, has hit a series of obstacles. Its first contractor went bankrupt. Covanta took over, but its parent company also declared bankruptcy.

Still, Tampa Bay Water stuck with Covanta, which said it would finish the plant before the official Jan. 31 deadline.

It not only failed to finish early, Covanta failed to meet the deadline.

The plant finally opened with great fanfare March 17. "This is a landmark day for our region," declared Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, Tampa Bay Water's chairman.

The plant pumped out more than 1-million gallons of drinking water, but ran into further trouble over the summer when the filters clogged faster than Tampa Bay Water officials expected.

Covanta officials experimented with various pretreatment chemicals and believe they have one that will keep the filters from clogging so quickly. But before they can test it, they have to clean the filters, and that's the problem now.

The used cleaning solution can't simply be dumped into Tampa Bay. Instead, Covanta is putting it into the sewer system.

But the company did not get permission for that until Aug. 25, Whitney said, and the permit from Hillsborough County sharply limits the amount that can be put into the sewer.

So about 80 tankers are parked around the desal plant containing a total of more than 1-million gallons of used cleaning solution waiting to be dumped into the sewer, Whitney said. Covanta must get rid of that backlog before it can clean enough filters for a full-fledged test of the new pretreatment chemicals, he said.

The stuff inside the tanks is detergent containing citric acid. It's salty, soapy water.

"It seems kind of silly that we have a plant that we know works, but we can't operate it because of the discharge of the cleaning solution," he said.

Tampa Bay Water officials offered to extend the Sept. 30 deadline to Oct. 12, but Covanta officials suggested pushing the deadline back even further, to mid November. That's unacceptable, say Tampa Bay Water officials.

Tampa Bay Water engineering manager Ken Herd said Thursday that if Covanta fails to at least begin testing the new chemicals on the filters by Sept. 30, the utility will declare the company in default.

Covanta would still have 48 days to fix the problem, but in the meantime Tampa Bay Water could collect $465,000 in fines as well as claiming 306-million gallons of free water from Covanta. That's more than 12 days of free water.

If Covanta is unable to fix things within 48 days, Herd said, Tampa Bay Water could go after the $23-million performance bond that Covanta was required to post at the start of construction. That money could be used to hire another company to complete the job.

Tampa Bay Water built the desal plant to help it comply with orders from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to stop pumping so much drinking water out of the ground. Overpumping drained lakes and rivers and damaged private wells. Robinson, the utility's spokeswoman, said Tampa Bay Water should have no trouble complying with the Swiftmud order even without the desal plant's water.

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