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    Officials to discuss desal settlement

    Commissioners will debate an agreement over the proposed plant in south Hillsborough County.

    By BILL VARIAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    TAMPA -- It has barely been a month since Hillsborough County commissioners voted to challenge plans for the region's first seawater desalination plant over fears it would harm Tampa Bay.

    Now commissioners are considering whether to settle that challenge in exchange for getting a $26-million environmental insurance policy from Tampa Bay Water and the companies building and operating the plant.

    As part of the settlement, which commissioners will take up in closed session this morning, Tampa Bay Water and the companies also would provide an $8.5-million performance bond. Some or all of the money would be forfeited if operating permits or applicable laws are violated in the plant's construction and operation.

    Gary Kuhl, Hillsborough's water team administrator, said the state Department of Environmental Protection has tentatively agreed to add those terms to its draft permit. He said he believed the proposal provided more safeguards than anything commissioners could hope to win through the challenge of that permit.

    "We feel that what we have defined covers a much broader spectrum (than the permit requirements)," Kuhl said.

    The possible settlement came up as a last-minute agenda addition during the commission's regular meeting Wednesday. Representatives of environmental and business groups rushed to the County Center after learning of the proposal late the night before.

    Members of Save Our Bay, Air and Canals, an environmental group that also has challenged the DEP permit, immediately condemned the settlement proposal. About a dozen members of the group, joined by a representative of the Sierra Club, said the insurance policy and bond money would hardly cover the cost of a disaster.

    "What they just offered is no protection for Tampa Bay," said BJ Lower, with SOBAC.

    Meanwhile, a newly formed coalition of business interests calling itself the Tampa Bay Regional Water Coalition, threatened to intervene in the legal case against the county if commissioners did not drop their challenge. That angered commissioners, who noted the group included the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which receives county money.

    Tampa lawyer Ron Weaver, speaking on behalf of the Chamber, immediately stepped forward to distance it from any such threat.

    "No one is threatening to intervene," Weaver said. "We compliment you for protecting this precious bay. We have no economic development without this precious bay."

    Tampa Bay Water, the bay region's water supplier, proposed the 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant next to the TECO plant near Apollo Beach in southern Hillsborough County. The $110-million plant would be built by Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources and operated by Tampa Bay Desal.

    County commissioners voted to challenge the permit May 1 after hearing from hundreds of southern Hillsborough County residents concerned about the proposal. Opponents said the salty discharge from the plant would harm plant and animal life in Tampa Bay, which is slow to circulate in that area.

    Commissioners are scheduled to go into closed session at 10 a.m. at the County Center, during which they will discuss only whether to enter settlement talks. A majority spoke favorably of the proposal Wednesday. Any settlement would have to be approved with a public vote.

    "If Hillsborough County were to approve this proposal in concept, we would view it as a very positive matter," said Don Conn, general counsel to Tampa Bay Water. "We would recommend to our board that they approve it next Monday as a concept for a settlement. If we reach a settlement, then the challenge would be gone."

    - Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.

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