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Water plan passes first challenge

Another failure could be costly for a group fighting the new treatment and desalination plants.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- The region's water regulator slapped away a challenge to a new water treatment plant in Hillsborough County on Tuesday, the first setback for a citizens group fighting permits for that facility and a planned desalination plant.

A decision on another challenge to the treatment plant is expected in the next week to 10 days. A second loss could leave the group, Save Our Bays And Canals, vulnerable to major financial penalties.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District's board last month approved an environmental resource permit for the new water treatment plant in central Hillsborough County, a facility central to plans for creating new sources of drinking water.

The permit coordinates the interests of all agencies with jurisdiction over a project.

Challenges to the permit can be filed in the 21 days immediately following Swiftmud approval. SOBAC missed the deadline by two days and failed to send anyone to the meeting here Tuesday to argue that its challenge should be heard. "That figures," SOBAC President J.B. Canterberry said of Swiftmud's action. "We'll have to see if there's an appeal."

According to Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan, the board's action Tuesday "effectively puts the permit in place."

SOBAC has also challenged a request by the lead contractor on the treatment plant, U.S. Filter, for a permitting variance that would allow for a phased construction process. As each phase was designed, it would be submitted for permits and construction would begin. It is a way of accelerating the process. A four-day hearing was completed earlier this month, and an administrative law judge is expected to rule within days.

If SOBAC loses, this ruling could lend weight to a motion filed with the law judge by the general counsel of Tampa Bay Water, the regional water wholesaler for whom the treatment plant is being built. The motion asks that if the judge finds in TBW's favor, an order be given to SOBAC to pay attorneys' fees and costs to the utility.

The motion is "based upon the complete lack of competent substantial evidence presented on behalf of SOBAC at the hearing," General Counsel Don Conn said in a memorandum to his board. Conn also asked the hearing officer to hold off ruling on that part of TBW's motion for 60 days, to determine if the utility and the citizens group can reach some accommodation.

"They presented no expert testimony of any sort that was relevant, and yet their challenges have caused us extremely long delays in permitting and construction," Conn said in an interview.

It could cost Tampa Bay Water as much as $6.8-million extra to accelerate construction once the permitting process is complete in order to bring the facility on line by the December 2002 deadline. That is when a regional agreement requires that pumping be reduced at TBW's 11 existing well fields to halt years of environmental damage due to over-production.

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