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    County's request vexes water board

    Hillsborough wants financial protection. Tampa Bay Water says that's not necessary.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


    Tampa Bay Water officials say they don't think it is possible to give Hillsborough County the financial insulation it wants against the cost of an environmental cleanup if a planned desalination plant doesn't perform as expected.

    And they say such a guarantee isn't necessary.

    The financial guarantee was at the heart of the Hillsborough County Commission's abrupt decision Tuesday night to challenge the final permit for the desalination plant in southeastern Hillsborough. Officials overseeing the development of the plant concluded tentatively on Wednesday that the challenge should not delay the project or add appreciably to its cost.

    But the fact that the commission decided to challenge the project at all surprised many because an array of studies, including Hillsborough's own independent investigation, concluded that the plant would not damage Tampa Bay.

    The commission's actions left some of Hillsborough's fellow members of Tampa Bay Water confused and angry and created yet another hitch in the region's ever-evolving struggle to find new drinking water resources.

    The state Department of Environmental Protection announced 10 days ago it intended to issue the final permit for the plant. That opened a 14-day window for legal challenges. One is anticipated from a citizens' group called Save Our Bays and Canals. But Hillsborough's demand for a surety bond to cover potential costs of long-term environmental damage was unexpected.

    "Who would even issue a bond when there's no science to support the possibility of a long-term salinity buildup in the bay?" said Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Water. "There is no legal basis for a requirement for a bond, no provision in DEP regulations."

    There was confidence in many circles Wednesday that the Hillsborough challenge, even coupled with one from SOBAC, would not likely delay the plant's completion schedule of December 2002. There was less certainty about cost.

    There will be some additional cost involving what Don Lindeman, the desalination project manager for Tampa Bay Water, called "the legal differential."

    "We anticipated the SOBAC challenge, but now we will have two different sets of issues to defend against, and that will add to the legal costs," Lindeman said.

    Don Conn, general counsel for Tampa Bay Water, the water utility, said he could not estimate the additional costs because he had not seen Hillsborough's challenge to analyze how complex the issues were, and SOBAC had not yet filed its challenge.

    The utility already had built a window for challenges into its construction schedule for the 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant at the Big Bend area of Hillsborough County. It committed in March to spend an additional $1-million to create $42-million worth of interim financing to keep work on the plant moving ahead as the challenge process goes on.

    Tampa Bay Water is likely to request an expedited hearing on the challenges before an administrative law judge from the state Department of Administration. If the request is granted, as such requests have been in the past, decisions could come by the end of summer.

    Tim De Foe, the desalination plant's project manager for its contractor, Tampa Bay Desal, said one of his principal concerns would be if the administrative hearing process drags on longer than Tampa Bay Water planned.

    "If the added complexity of defending against two challenges pushes us past the time frame we allotted for this, it could have cost consequences," De Foe said.

    But Gary Kuhl, administrator of Hillsborough County's water resource team, which advised the commissioners against making their challenge, said he did not expect it to have a major impact on timing or cost.

    "All along, everyone expected SOBAC and possibly others to challenge," Kuhl said. "I don't see the commission challenge as the cause of a delay. Of course, if the challenge prevails, you would have to add the cost of the bond to the project."

    That likely would run into millions.

    In Pasco County, where residents have borne the brunt of environmental damage done by over-pumping well fields there -- a situation the desal plant was supposed to improve -- officials were not pleased by Hillsborough's action.

    "That's just bad faith, that's absolutely in bad faith," said Doug Bramlett, the county's utilities chief.

    - Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.

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