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DEP nod nearing for desal plant

The Tampa Bay plant still must go through public comment and possible challenges.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


TAMPA -- State regulators have taken a major step in the effort to bring seawater desalination to Tampa Bay.

The Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft permit late Thursday for a 25-million-gallon-a-day desal plant on Tampa Bay in southern Hillsborough County. The project, one of several aimed at easing regional reliance on groundwater, still faces public comment and the possibility of legal challenges.

But if there are no challenges, ground could be broken for the plant early in May.

If that happens on schedule, the plant should be ready to begin operations by the deadline of Dec. 31, 2002, according to Honey Rand, spokeswoman for S&W Water, the principal contractor.

"We're very hopeful there will be no challenges because it's been proved that desal is not harmful to the environment," Rand said. "It would be a waste of money and a waste of time, particularly because we are in a drought situation, and this plant would supply 10 percent of the region's water demand."

The community group Save Our Bays and Canals, which has opposed the desalination project for months, is likely to challenge it. Hillsborough County might mount a challenge as well because so many new water projects are planned here.

"We made that decision over a year ago" to challenge the permit, said SOBAC president J.B. Canterberry. "That's why we were formed. We didn't expect DEP to change its mind and not issue the permit. That's the Department of Environmental Destruction, not Protection."

SOBAC contends that the plant would be an environmental disaster for the bay. No environmental groups have joined SOBAC.

As soon as a location is set, Rand said, S&W Water will schedule a public hearing on the draft permit. From the day the notice of the meeting appears, there will be a 30-day window for filing comments. Between the public meeting and the issuance of the final permit, challenges that could delay the project may be filed with the state Department of Administration.

"We are on schedule now, but there isn't a lot of wiggle room," Rand said. "You can only accelerate a process so much to make up for lost time. Concrete only cures so fast."

Don Lindeman, desal project manager for Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility, said there is work that can proceed even while a challenge is heard, such as engineering work and orders for pumps and membranes.

"That would require interim financing and would have to be a decision by our board," Lindeman said. "There is some economic risk associated with it."

DEP's schedule calls for the final permit to be issued April 30.

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