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What's Save Our Bays up to now?

Not a whole lot. After a vigorous fight against the desalination plant, many members of Save Our Bays, Air and Canals became convinced that business runs Hillsborough, and Florida.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published November 4, 2005


APOLLO BEACH - At his dining room table, Dominick Gebbia reads from a speech that he presented to the government agency that provides Tampa Bay's drinking water.

"There is no satisfaction in pointing a finger and saying "I told you so.' "

Gebbia was a leader of the citizens group Save our Bays, Air and Canals. A thousand people joined the fight against a desalination plant on Tampa Bay. It ended in a courtroom, where SOBAC challenged the government's environmental experts and powerful corporations.

SOBAC lost.

That was four years ago. Before the public knew about the design problems that would plague the desal plant's operation. Before they knew that fixes would raise the cost by $40-million. Before the plant's startup date would be delayed nearly four years. Before they knew that SOBAC, once a thriving grass-roots group, might not last to see the day that desal comes online.

No one comes to the meetings anymore.

Maybe 300 members remain in SOBAC - Gebbia isn't sure exactly. After stepping down as president in January, Gebbia hasn't found a permanent successor.

SOBAC still has cash in the bank for another fight. But not the energy.

"I really kind of burned out," Gebbia said.

* * *

SOBAC started with neighbors talking in Apollo Beach. JB Canterberry heard about it from his wife, who heard about it from a neighbor.

To shore up the region's water supply, government agencies proposed removing the salt from water drawn from Tampa Bay. They would purify gallons for drinking water and release the salty discharge back into the estuary.

They wanted to build the largest desalination plant in North America in Apollo Beach.

The residents living nearby had many concerns.

"It was just blatantly obvious that what they were going to do wasn't going to work," Canterberry said.

"If they could get it to work, it was going to kill everything in the bay."

The Apollo Beach Civic Association wouldn't take up the issue, citing a conflict of interest. Its leader was married to an executive at TECO, which proposed to put the desal equipment by its Big Bend power plant.

Residents held a community meeting to form an independent group. Canterberry, who has a doctorate in chemistry, raised his hand when someone asked for a president.

Like most of the board members, he lived on a canal and was concerned about the marine life in the bay.

"There used to be dolphins that came here," Canterberry said. "I used to be able to go out any time I wanted to and see black mullet."

Almost overnight, SOBAC rallied into a regional force.

On weekends, SOBAC set up at community festivals. Members signed up from Pinellas and Manatee counties. Six hundred people packed a community meeting at East Bay High. Within a year, SOBAC counted 1,000 members.

SOBAC's leaders mostly worked full time. Some, like Canterberry, had letters strung after their names. Others were real estate agents, teachers and cops.

They logged hour after hour at the USF library researching estuaries. They placed phone calls to Cyprus, a nation that had a major desalination plant. One member photographed the barren environment at the bottom of Tampa Bay near TECO's Big Bend plant.

From the start, SOBAC knew it needed money for a legal war chest. It raised $120,000 at fundraisers such as golf tournaments. Members sold drink cozies and boat flags with SOBAC's logo.

When the time came, SOBAC had the money for a court battle.

* * *

SOBAC's lawyer wasn't afraid to admit fear.

"I'm scared," Ralf Brookes told the St. Petersburg Times on the first day of an administrative court hearing on the desalination plant's permit.

The competition brought 17 lawyers, assistants, company officials and experts. They filled the courtroom with supporters of the desal plant.

SOBAC's opponents included the contractor, Tampa Bay Desal, Tampa Bay Water, the state Department of Environmental Protection, TECO, Pasco County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

In opening statements, Brookes displayed black and white charts on an overhead projector.

Tampa Bay Desal's lawyer used animated color graphics.

"It was a David-and-Goliath scene," said Joe Marzilli, 44, then a SOBAC board member.

SOBAC spent more than $100,000 on the legal effort. It hired experts to address concerns about environmental damage from the salty discharge that a plant would pump into Tampa Bay.

Desal supporters emphasized the need for new water sources to serve a growing population. They cited studies predicting no damage to the bay.

SOBAC's motives came under scrutiny. Some critics contended that Apollo Beach residents had a "not in my back yard" mentality. SOBAC leaders countered the plant was not the issue. It was the brine, which they wanted piped away from the coastline.

Administrative Law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston decided which side would prevail.

In October 2001, his 106-page ruling quashed the arguments raised by SOBAC. He determined that the desal plant was safe and needed. He rejected suggestions for monitoring the plant.

The silver lining: The judge did not reject SOBAC's case as frivolous, so it wouldn't have to pay the winning side's legal fees. It was little consolation to SOBAC.

"We tried to convince people that we worked very hard, and we have nothing to be ashamed of," Marzilli said. "It is very hard to fight City Hall, especially in a state that is pro-development."

Marzilli walked away with a victory: He met his future wife at a SOBAC meeting. But other members had little reason to rally.

"People just said, "We lost,' and they walked away."

* * *

To Barbara Murphy, the outcome was proof that business interests run Hillsborough County. She and her husband wanted out. They moved to the Orlando suburbs in October 2002.

"Why spend all our precious man hours fighting for something when you're not going to win?" said Murphy, formerly a SOBAC board member. "We lost. What else can you do?"

For various reasons, about half of the SOBAC board members left the Apollo Beach area. Others stepped down from leadership roles. Family and work demanded full attention again.

SOBAC's mission was as broad as its name: Save our Bays, Air and Canals. Although membership had diminished, the organization tackled new issues.

It fought unsuccessfully against a sulphur plant in Apollo Beach and opposed plans to expand a landfill in south Hillsborough. It got Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission to install a monitor on Apollo Beach Elementary's roof to detect small particles from TECO's smokestacks.

History also judged SOBAC kindly.

County commissioners recognized SOBAC with a good-government award. It received a grant to monitor discharge at the desal plant. But SOBAC hasn't had the opportunity. The plant has operated only sporadically since its scheduled start.

Leaders had several visions for moving forward. SOBAC could try to grow its membership outside Apollo Beach. It could tackle other environmental concerns. It could focus on educating students and the community about Tampa Bay's ecosystem.

But SOBAC organizers struggled to find members willing to volunteer. Monthly newsletters turned into bimonthly updates, then quarterly reports. There was little news to share.

Before long, no one wanted the responsibility of a leadership position.

This fall, after a new president abruptly quit, the remaining SOBAC board members decided to place the group on hiatus. The organization won't meet again until January.

A few months ago, SOBAC received a phone call from Sarasota.

A funeral home wanted to know where to send donations made in lieu of flowers, the final wish of a onetime member who had passed away.

Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lstein@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 3, 2005, 08:48:08]


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