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Agency declines to review desal plan

The state DEP will not convene outside experts to study a proposed plant on Tampa Bay.

By DAVID KARP and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


Florida's top environmental regulator turned down a request Thursday to bring in outside experts to study a proposal for a desalination plant on Tampa Bay.

David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Thursday he wouldn't convene an independent panel to study how the proposed $100-million desalination plant could change the bay.

But Struhs promised to accept any studies done by outside experts, if another government agency wants to convene a panel to look at the proposed plant. The facility will produce about 25-million gallons of water a day by converting salty seawater into drinking water.

Struhs' department is now reviewing a proposal from S&W Water, a partnership between Stone & Webster engineering and its financial partner, Poseidon Resources, to build the plant.

Struhs said the DEP could not legally convene an outside panel of experts while also reviewing S&W Water's proposal at the same time. The DEP also doesn't have the money for organizing such a group, he said.

But Struhs promised Thursday that the DEP's review won't be "a rush to judgment."

"The complexity of this decision means we will definitely have our A-team on this one," he said.

On Wednesday, Struhs and his team met for 41/2 hours with members of Save Our Bays and Canals, a citizens group that opposes putting the desalination plant on Tampa Bay, to tell them about his decision.

"We are disappointed, but he hasn't closed the door to us," said Tricia Mitchell, who met with Struhs in Tallahassee. She hopes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will agree to study the proposed plant.

Without some government agency willing to sponsor an independent review, the DEP will have to rely on scientists paid by S&W Water. Those scientists, though, will have to meet DEP's standards to get approval to build the plant.

State Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Frostproof, who originally asked for an independent study of the plant, said he now believes the DEP can review the proposal fairly.

"I have high confidence in Secretary Struhs and his very credible professionals who are looking at all aspects of this permit," said Alexander, chairman of the House Water & Resource Management Committee, who also sat in on Wednesday's meeting.

Even Mitchell agreed that Struhs seemed willing to hear her group's concerns at length. Her meeting with Struhs ran well past 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"We were truly impressed that all these civil servants stayed after the bell," she said.

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