Water plant delays run patience dry
After a dry winter, the delay alarms Tampa Bay Water's board, including Pam Iorio.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published December 19, 2006
CLEARWATER - The opening of Tampa Bay Water's troubled desalination plant, already three years overdue, will be delayed again until March.
That's six months after it was supposed to be producing water. And if the Apollo Beach plant misses that deadline, it may threaten the utility's ability to meet increasing water demands. Dry winter months already have forced the utility to tap its reservoir earlier than usual even as the spring dry season looms.
The announcement of the delay, made at Monday's utility board meeting by the latest company to work on the plant, sparked some sharp comments from irritated board members, particularly Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
"You can't help but be alarmed by this latest delay," she said, noting that disputes over the plant's previous failures have led to legal costs for the utility that have already topped $6-million.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker focused on the potential penalties facing the contractor, a German-Spanish consortium called American Water Pridesa, for missing its deadline. The answer: $10,000 a day, although the final amount is subject to negotiation.
When American Water regional vice president Daniel Warnock, told board members that "at the end of March we hope we can toast with a glass of something," Baker asked how sure he was about the date this time.
"I don't want to give you a date unless I'm 99.9 percent sure that we're going to meet it," Warnock replied. But he stopped short of saying 100 percent for one simple reason, he said: "Can I tell you there won't be something that goes wrong? I can't do that."
Tampa Bay Water will need its desalination plant more than ever this spring. Even as demand for water is increasing, rainfall is far below average. That means the flow of the rivers where the utility gets millions of gallons of water is too low to draw much water from them.
As a result the utility has tapped its reservoir early. In December 2005 it stood at 15-billion gallons, full to the brim and ready for the dry season. It's now down to 11.5-billion gallons.
So if the desalination plant isn't working by the start of the dry season in April, the utility and its 2-million customers are likely to pay the price in restrictions on water use. And it will likely deal the desalination industry as a whole a big setback.
"We're going to hold you accountable," board chairman Ted Schrader, a Pasco County commissioner, warned Warnock. "The whole country is looking at this."
Construction of the Apollo Beach plant, the largest in the United States, was launched in 1999. It was supposed to begin operating by 2003, aiding the utility with an alternative source of drinking water in times of drought.
The plant was designed to take 40-million gallons of seawater from Tampa Bay, filter out the salt and turn it into 25-million gallons of drinking water a day, lessening the environmental impact of pumping groundwater.
The plant has been plagued by problems from the start, ranging from contractors going bankrupt and Asian green mussels clogging its water intakes to the discovery that many of the plant's water pumps had rusted.
Then, when Tampa Bay Water tried to hire someone to fix the plant two years ago, the bids came in well above the $14-million estimate. American Water Pridesa, which won the contract, bid $29-million.
The repairs were supposed to be finished by October, but the company pushed the date back to just before Christmas. Last month, company officials informed Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell that they would not be done until sometime after Jan. 1. Then came Monday's announcement that the new goal is the end of March.
Warnock, in a Powerpoint presentation to the board, quickly flashed past the slide explaining why the project has been delayed again, which was titled "Challenges." Among the list: a seawater pump that failed due to corrosion, a repaired pump that was delivered from France weeks after it was needed, and a seawater pipeline that leaked.
Not mentioned were some changes in the plans that the contractor came up with. For instance, the company originally was going to squeeze a new chemical process into the plant's existing building, but then discovered there was no room. So instead the company built a new chemical building.
About 50 people are now working long hours trying to get the plant done, said Warnock and project manager Eric Sabolsice - to the point that Warnock said he was concerned that they might start cutting corners or risking the safety of the employees. So the company decided to push the deadline back instead, he said.
Iorio, who joined the utility board in 2003, said her opinion of the $140-million project "changed dramatically" after hearing a complete history of its many failures during a closed-door session last month with the attorneys handling the litigation.
"It always seems very difficult to point your finger at anyone willing to take responsibility," she said.
After the meeting, she told reporters that she fears this contractor will miss so many deadlines it, too, will wind up in court with the utility.
Iorio noted that Maxwell's contract, which expires in November, says that if the plant is not operational by then, he will be let go with no severance pay.
"At some point," she said, "the staff needs to step up and take responsibility."
Seven years of desalination delays: a time line
Selected major developments:
1999: Tampa Bay Water hires Stone & Webster to a build desalination plant.
2000: Stone & Webster goes bankrupt. Covanta Energy is hired to replace it.
2002: Covanta files for bankruptcy and creates subsidiary to continue building the plant.
2003: The desalination plant flunks tests and is deemed incomplete. The Covanta subsidiary goes bankrupt.
2004: Tampa Bay Water pays the Covanta subsidiary $4.4-million to walk away and hires American Water Pridesa to fix the plant for $29-million.
October: American Water
Pridesa misses the deadline to fix the desalination plant and says it will be ready for testing by December.
November: American Water Pridesa says the fix won't be done until after Jan. 1.
Monday: American Water Pridesa says the fix will be complete by March 30.
[Last modified December 19, 2006, 07:06:40]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]