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Desal company wants money, 17 more weeks

But as the contractor asks for time and $325,000, Tampa Bay Water looks for someone else to finish the job. Covanta has until Sept. 30 to get the desalination plant running.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published September 16, 2003

CLEARWATER - The contractor in charge of building and running Tampa Bay Water's $110-million desalination plant asked Monday for another 17 weeks and at least $325,000 extra to finish the job.

Instead, the utility may hire someone new to finish the nation's largest desal plant and also to run it for the next 30 years, Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell said.

If Covanta, the New Jersey-based company that has nearly finished the plant and is supposed to run it, fails to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to get the plant operating, "it creates the opportunity" to hire someone else, Maxwell said. Perhaps for less than Covanta's $10-million a year price.

Although the contract to build the plant is separate from the one to operate it, "there's clearly a connection between the two," Maxwell said.

Failure to complete the plant would cost Covanta the contract to operate it, he said.

Covanta vice president Scott Whitney said his company had been hoping the Tampa Bay Water board would order Maxwell and his staff to work with Covanta in trying to solve the problem that has kept the plant closed.

"We kind of feel like we're being left holding the bag here," Whitney said. "We need to stop attacking each other and attack the problem."

Maxwell said his staff already has begun talking about the Apollo Beach desal plant with a number of other companies "who routinely let us know they're out there and would like to step in."

He said Tampa Bay Water has told those companies to be ready to bid for the job of running the plant should Covanta falter, informing them: "We've got a contract with these folks that's got to run its course, but stay in the on-deck circle."

In the meantime, Tampa Bay Water board members told Maxwell to push Covanta to finish the job it started two years ago.

"Hold their feet to the fire," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a board member.

They said time is running out to get the desal plant up and producing the 25-million gallons of fresh water a day that was promised.

The plant's lengthy delay in opening had not been a problem for the utility's 2-million customers because of the rainy summer.

"The gun is to our head now," Latvala said, "because we're ending the rainy season."

Tampa Bay Water officials acknowledged that this particular problem dates back to the beginning of the plant, when a previous contractor, Stone & Webster, built a pilot plant to test the desal process.

Stone & Webster, which dropped out of the project after declaring bankruptcy, failed to test the entire desal process, said Tampa Bay Water operations director Jonathan Kennedy. So did Covanta when it took over.

"Individual pieces were piloted," Kennedy said. "It just wasn't piloted as a whole system."

Tampa Bay Water's contract did not allow it to see the results from those pilot tests, so Tampa Bay Water did not find out about the lack of testing until problems cropped up with the plant's filtering system this spring, said Ken Herd, the utility's engineering manager.

Covanta's contract called for it to complete the plant by Jan. 30, but it missed the deadline.

In March, Tampa Bay Water officials held a public ceremony to declare the plant operational, even toasting it with the plant's own product, but there were still problems.

The utility had not formally accepted the plant as complete, and it pushed for Covanta to complete all the testing by its new deadline in May.

As a result, Herd said, Covanta overworked the membranes that filter out the salt without keeping them properly cleaned.

"Maybe they should have come to us and asked for more time then," Kennedy said.

Instead, he said, Covanta tried using a stronger cleaning solution on the plant's 10,000 membranes than had been planned for. Disposing of that potent cleanser has proven a major headache.

Hillsborough County is allowing it to be dumped in the sewer system, but only a little at a time.

More than half the membranes are still fouled, and more than 2-million gallons of used cleaning solution is being temporarily stored in tanker trailers parked behind the desal plant.

The plant is now supposed to be operational by Sept. 30.

If it's not, then on Oct. 1 the utility could declare Covanta in default on its contract. Covanta would then have 48 days to fix the problem.

If it fails, then Tampa Bay Water could hire someone else, utility officials say.

Tampa Bay Water offered last week to extend the deadline to Oct. 12.

Instead, Covanta asked for 17 more weeks and, blaming the delays on Tampa Bay Water, asked for another $325,000 to cover its costs so far.

Covanta also said it would be filing a claim for even more damages because the plant has not been able to sell any water yet.

"The board is showing some angst about the ability of these people to perform," Maxwell said. "We can't keep granting them extensions and not getting close to the finish line."

[Last modified September 16, 2003, 02:02:55]


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