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Pasco incensed over desalination delay

Pasco officials say Hillsborough County's last-minute challenge to the construction of a desalination plant is ''bad faith'' and a ''delaying tactic.''

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


Desalination, seen as potential salvation in drought-stricken, pumping-stressed Pasco County, has been threatened by Hillsborough County's vote to challenge the proposed plant south of Tampa.

Reaction to that vote in Pasco has been blunt.

Critics call it a "scuttling action," a "delaying tactic," "bad faith," and an example of "bad leadership."

Some criticism can't be printed.

Pasco, of course, is the biggest beneficiary of the 25-million gallons of water a day promised by the Big Bend desalination plant, scheduled to come online by Dec. 31, 2002.

Every gallon produced by the plant is one less gallon sucked from the ground in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough.

News arrived Wednesday morning about Hillsborough commissioners' last-minute vote to challenge the environmental permit for the plant.

A majority of the commissioners said they worry Hillsborough would pay for environmental cleanup should the plant harm Hillsborough Bay.

Pasco utility chief Doug Bramlett said Hillsborough had more than a year to challenge the environmental studies underlying the plant.

Hillsborough's own staff, backed by five separate reports, confirmed that the brine from the plant wouldn't accumulate in the bay to the detriment of marine life.

"That's just bad faith, that's absolutely in bad faith," Bramlett said of the challenge. "I thought they'd have the guts and foresight to understand that if this plant isn't online, the pumping out of Pasco County is going to continue."

Officials with Tampa Bay Water, the regional water agency sponsoring the plant, said they squirreled away $42-million in interim financing in expectation of such a challenge.

The money will allow the water agency to begin pre-constructing the plant even as Hillsborough's challenge wends its way through the administrative hearing process, which could take six months to a year.

Asked if the plant would be operational by the end of 2002, Tampa Bay Water project manager Don Lindeman said, "We plan to meet that target."

But Pasco Commission Chairman Steve Simon fears the worst: that the challenge could delay construction by six months, further harming Pasco's already overstressed well fields.

Simon complained that Hillsborough's vote was just the latest "scuttling action" from Pasco's neighbors to the south.

The plant is the center of a plan to cut groundwater pumping at 11 Pasco and northwest Hillsborough well fields from 158-million gallons a day to 121-million gallons.

"There are some bodies on that board that are very predisposed toward arresting growth at most levels. And I think they see the stalling of the water plant as a handle," Simon said Wednesday. "I just think it's a very unfair handle to use for growth management."

And what of the water activists who have looked toward desalination to help stop the environmental destruction of Pasco?

Gilliam Clarke immersed herself in the issue when collapsing terrain on her property, at least partly a result of groundwater pumping at Cypress Creek well field, got her dander up.

Clarke called the resistence from Hillsborough the epitome of "NIMBY," short for "Not In My Back Yard." She wondered how much harm the plant could do to a bay already speckled with cargo docks and phosphate plants.

"We are being destroyed," Clarke said. "It's time this county stood on its hind legs and said, 'No more!' "

County commissioner Peter Altman said Hillsborough's decision violated the spirit of the six-government agreement that created Tampa Bay Water in 1998. Member governments foreswore unilateral legal challenges to water agency decisions.

Altman said his counterparts in Hillsborough lack "leadership and resolve" by caving in to a small group of anti-desalination activists when 2-million customers need water from the desal plant.

"They are now standing straight in the middle of what is a necessary element of a plan to solve this water crisis," he said.

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