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Problems plague another water plant

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published February 19, 2007


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Controversy has raged for years over Tampa Bay Water's troubled desalination plant. Its opening was delayed. Its filters clogged too fast. It failed to produce enough water.

But Tampa Bay Water's other plant, hailed as a success and handed national awards, has had nearly as many problems without the public fuss.

Opening of the $144-million Surface Water Treatment Plant in Brandon, expected to produce 66-million gallons of water a day, was delayed. Its filters clogged too fast. It failed to produce enough water - just 42.5-million gallons a day last year, more than 20-million gallons a day below its capacity.

Now officials are planning a major expansion that is expected to cost taxpayers $94-million.

Tampa Bay Water officials say the plant, which is designed to take water from two rivers and a canal, is fixed now. However, they haven't tested whether it can produce 66-million gallons a day over the long term because of the drought and a design flaw that limits use of the new reservoir.

A spokeswoman for the French company hired to build and operate the Surface Water Treatment Plant for 15 years, Veolia, declined to make any of its executives available last week to comment on the plant's problems.

Both the desal plant in Apollo Beach and the new plant were projects built to allow Tampa Bay Water to cut back on pumping water from the ground. Groundwater pumping had drained swamps and dried up private wells, so the Southwest Florida Water Management District offered to help pay for developing alternative water sources.

In March 2000, Tampa Bay Water hired Veolia, the world's largest water company. It boasts that its patented treatment process "has proven particularly effective in treating large volumes of variable raw water quality."

Veolia's contract said it was supposed to have the plant ready to start treating river water by September 2002. But Veolia couldn't get the chemical mix just right until four months after that, said Jon Kennedy, who oversaw the project for Tampa Bay Water.

"They took their time getting it done, and we were running out of patience," Kennedy said.

The month the plant finally opened, it won an award for the best infrastructure project in the country from the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. In a joint news release with Veolia about the award, Tampa Bay Water officials bragged that the plant had been built "on time and on budget" and would now become "the cornerstone of our operation."

In truth, though, the "cornerstone" ran into serious problems in producing the kind of high-quality water that Tampa Bay Water required. In October 2002 a consultant filed the first of what would become many reports detailing problems with pollutants in what the plant was producing.

The water coming out of the plant's treatment process was "clearly exceeding" the limits on the chemicals sulfate and chloride, the consultant from Camp Dresser & McKee noted.

He blamed the chemistry of the raw water coming from the two rivers and the canal. Certain chemicals in those waterways were so prevalent that "compliance ... would be difficult, if not impossible, under these conditions," the consultant concluded.

So Tampa Bay Water had to spend $7-million more building an "alkalinity adjustment facility" that could clean up what was in the river water. The plant continued experiencing problems.

Yet in March 2003, the Association of General Contractors awarded the plant a "Build America" award. The citation said the plant "was delivered on schedule" and "supplies the Tampa Bay area with some of the best water in the country."

Despite such high praise, between 2003 and 2004 the plant repeatedly violated the standards it was supposed to meet for sulfate, chloride and hardness. High levels of sulfate in drinking water can cause diarrhea, while chlorides can make it salty. Hard water can leave mineral deposits stuck on dishes and bathtubs, and clothes washed in hard water can wind up looking dingy.

Kennedy said Tampa Bay Water had set high standards for the water from the plant, far higher than what federal drinking water standards require, so the violations did not create any health hazard. Still, Tampa Bay Water had to dilute the water from the plant by mixing it with water from other sources.

The plant's repeated violations were sufficient grounds for Tampa Bay Water to fire Veolia. But the utility stuck with the company - even though the plant's eight filters were clogging twice as fast as they were supposed to, and as a result it was failing to reach the production target of 66-million gallons of water a day.

"Giving them a year, that was my decision," Kennedy said. "I thought that was reasonable. ... After they had 12 months in, our patience ran out."

In April 2004, Veolia reported that it had found the problem: The company's vaunted treatment process was actually making the chlorides, sulfate and hardness worse.

How could Veolia make such a mistake? The Alafia, Hillsborough and Tampa Bypass Canal were all waterways that had been sampled and studied for years. The data were a matter of public record. The pollutants in them were no secret.

Veolia spokeswoman Christie Kaluza did not respond directly to the question. In an e-mail she said the company's treatment process "works fine" but "we were having challenges in our posttreatment process which softens and stabilizes the water."

By February 2005, the plant had been out of compliance for 18 of its 25 months of operation. Because Veolia didn't check the water quality data before designing and building the plant, Tampa Bay Water could have demanded damages or even fired it.

Instead, the utility negotiated a deal, approved by the Tampa Bay Water board in August 2005: Veolia would fix the plant at its own expense, "as an alternative to their being thrown out," Kennedy said.

In return, Tampa Bay Water would lower its water quality standards for the plant during the rainy season, when the sulfate and chlorides are at their worst.

Veolia spent $2.5-million installing a ninth filter in the plant, something the company was willing to do "because of the black eye it was giving them," Kennedy said. He said that should guarantee the plant can produce up to 71-million gallons a day on demand.

At least, that's the theory. Trouble is, there's a drought on, and the utility can't take water out of the rivers and canal while the flows are down. The plant ran for nine days last fall at 66-million gallons a day, Kennedy said.

But since then it has been producing 55-million gallons a day, he said. One day last week it dipped to just 43-million gallons.

Kennedy said the test for the plant will come this summer, when the rainy season begins and the rivers are high enough to take more water from them.

But if the plant flunks the test again, "it's not our problem. (Veolia) still has to cure the plant," Kennedy said.

In the meantime, the plant has been treating water taken from the reservoir. But now the reservoir is half-empty, so there's not enough pressure to push the water through 19 miles of pipes fast enough to send 66-million gallons a day to the plant for treatment.

So Tampa Bay Water plans to install a large pump at the reservoir as part of its expansion of the Surface Water Treatment Plant. When the expansion is complete in 2010, the plant should be able to produce up to 99-million gallons a day, Kennedy said.

It's all part of a new water supply plan that the utility hopes to obtain funding for from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, with each agency paying $94-million. Tampa Bay Water's half would come from its customers, while Swiftmud's half would come from taxes levied by the state agency.

Swiftmud's board has not yet approved the deal. Last year the state agency's staff expressed concern to Tampa Bay Water that the plant wasn't producing 66-million gallons a day.

Tampa Bay Water replied that "the plant cannot produce its design capacity on an annual average basis, and furthermore Tampa Bay Water never intended to operate the plant at its maximum rate on an annual basis" - the same argument it employed in regard to the desal plant.

[Last modified February 19, 2007, 00:26:40]


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