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$75-million desal cost overrun possible

That's the extra cost of running the plant over 30 years if its filtering system problems can't be solved.

Published October 21, 2003

CLEARWATER - If Tampa Bay Water's contractors can't fix problems with the new $110-million desalination plant, the glitch will add an extra $75-million to the cost of operation over the next 30 years.

For Tampa Bay Water's 2-million customers in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, that would add about 5 cents per 1,000 gallons to the cost of water, utility officials said Monday.

Although a nickel doesn't sound like much, "we feel like it's important for us to hold the line on this," said operations director Jonathan Kennedy.

Some of the utility's board members - St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has been the most vocal - have already complained about how the cost of water has risen as the utility seeks alternatives to pumping water out of the ground.

One of the biggest alternative sources that Tampa Bay Water has been counting on is its desal plant in Apollo Beach. The plant was supposed to be up and running eight months ago, producing 25-million gallons of water a day. But its builder, Covanta, failed a test designed to show that it was ready to roll. Tampa Bay Water officials found 30 areas that needed fixing and gave Covanta until Sept. 30 to pass a second test.

But Covanta missed that deadline. It still has not completed a second test, although the plant is now producing an average of 17-million gallons of drinking water a day, Kennedy said.

On Oct. 1, Tampa Bay Water declared Covanta in default of its contract. The New Jersey company now has until Nov. 17 to finish the job, or it could be fired, officials say.

During Monday's Tampa Bay Water board meeting, members authorized director Jerry Maxwell to prepare a list of potential contractors who could step in and take over the job.

Covanta officials say that step is "premature." They contend their staff is working hard to get the desal plant running properly, and they questioned the accuracy of Kennedy's cost calculations too.

The most troublesome glitch facing Covanta is the fouling of the filtering systems that screen out the salt from the bay's seawater. That could add $2.5-million to the plant's annual operation cost, and over the 30 years of the plant's contract life that would amount to $75-million, Kennedy said.

However, Covanta vice president Scott Whitney suggested that Kennedy's dire prediction on the cost may be off. Whitney defended his company's efforts, but he could not say whether it would be able to meet the Nov. 17 deadline.

[Last modified October 21, 2003, 01:48:40]

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