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    Desalination plant wins in court

    Opponents lose their battle to block the permit to operate the country's largest plant converting seawater to freshwater.

    By TAMARA LUSH

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 18, 2001


    TAMPA -- A proposed desalination plant in Hillsborough County cleared its last major legal hurdle Wednesday when a judge recommended state environmental officials issue a permit to operate the plant.

    In a 106-page ruling, administrative law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston quashed the arguments of Save Our Bays and Canals, a group of residents who argued the plant's residue will harm marine life in the bay.

    SOBAC had argued in August that strict monitoring of the plant is needed to ensure the amount of oxygen and salt residue pumped into the bay remains within safe levels.

    But Lawrence found their arguments were without merit, and sided with Tampa Bay Desal, the private company building the plant.

    "Tampa Bay Desal provided reasonable assurances that the proposed discharge will meet . . . surface water standards set to protect recreational uses, including fishing and swimming, and protect the water body for the propagation of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife," he wrote.

    Once in operation, the plant is expected to provide up to 25-million gallons of drinking water a day. Municipal officials and regional water experts say the plant will provide a drought-proof source of water and reduce the need for groundwater pumping in the area, especially in places like fast-growing Pasco County.

    Representatives of Tampa Bay Water, which provides freshwater to nearly 2-million people in the area, and officials with Tampa Bay Desal cheered the judge's decision Wednesday.

    "The bottom line is, the judge underscored the fact that the plant is both an excellent source of water and a way to protect the environment," said Honey Rand, a plant spokeswoman. "That is very gratifying."

    SOBAC members were reluctant to comment on the decision, or say whether they might appeal.

    "We haven't gotten the order and seen what it actually says," said BJ Lower, president of SOBAC.

    The judge did not accept SOBAC's suggestions for monitoring the plant.

    In fact, Johnston referred to one of SOBAC's expert witnesses, who claimed the plant would put harmful levels of dissolved oxygen into the bay, with some pointed words: "(The expert) dismissed the permit language . . . as being 'loosey-goosey,' 'fuzzy-wuzzy,' and 'weasel-like.' Actually, there is no conflict between the proposed permit's dissolved oxygen limitations and the water quality standards and water quality criteria (set by the state)," the judge wrote.

    Tampa Bay Water, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Tampa Electric Co., Pasco County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg all support the desalination project.

    The plant, which will cost about $110-million to build, is under construction at the TECO site in the Big Bend area of southern Hillsborough County.

    It will be the largest seawater desalination plant in the United States, and the first such privately financed and privately owned plant.

    It is expected to begin providing freshwater in December 2002.

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