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Pinellas Park balks on desal plant site

City officials want guarantees and possibly a spot on the Tampa Bay Water board before supporting the plant.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- Some City Council members are willing to allow a desalination plant on city land but . . .

. . . Rick Butler wants to make sure area business owners are satisfied that their wells will be safe from contamination.

. . . Ed Taylor wants the city to be a voting board member of Tampa Bay Water, the area's largest utility and the company that wants to build the plant.

Tampa Bay Water wants to buy about 2 acres of a 7-acre site at 102nd Avenue N and the Cross Bayou Canal for the facility. The 2 acres have been appraised at between $147,500 and $180,000. The council could decide next month whether to negotiate a sales price with the utility.

Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2003.

The plant would pump 5-million gallons of drinking water a day from 14 wells that would supply the brackish water needed for the conversion. Brackish water has less salt content than seawater and costs less to clean.

The Pinellas Park reception for the proposal has been fearful.

Some residents have worried about the potential for sinkholes. Some business people, especially the owners of plant nurseries, have fretted that the wells they use to water their plants would be tainted.

The contamination, they fear, would come from pumping water out of the ground and injecting the leftover water back into the ground to dispose of it.

Nursery owners say the byproduct, which would contain all the salt and minerals taken out in the cleaning process, could pollute the water in their wells and perhaps kill their plants.

"These wells are not going to repair themselves," said Ken Bishop, a nursery owner who attended Tuesday's meeting. "Once they're destroyed, that's it."

Fellow grower Richard Carroll: "I can't afford my livelihood to go down, so I have to fight it until it happens."

Butler has heeded those concerns, constantly questioning Tampa Bay Water's representatives about their dealings with the growers. He was upset Tuesday to discover that utility officials had apparently not calmed the growers' fears.

"These people here, they work here; they live here; they make their living here; so I've got to get these folks happy," Butler said. "Until these folks come and say they're happy, I can't support you.

"I'm going to give you a commitment: If these guys call me up and say they're happy and they've got some of their questions answered, I'm going to support this. . . . If they're happy, come next council meeting, I'm giving you my word, I'll support it. I can't get no clearer than that. And I don't change my mind."

But that would be only one vote, Mayor Bill Mischler said.

"I don't want to mislead you," he told a utility official in attendance. "You have one opinion at this point. I'm not sure at this point as far as the site."

Mischler and others also backed Taylor's demand for a seat on Tampa Bay Water's board. They told City Manager Jerry Mudd to write the utility a letter outlining the proposal.

Tampa Bay Water supplies drinking water to St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey, and to Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. The board of Tampa Bay Water comes from those six governmental bodies.

That's fine now, Taylor said, but if the utility is going to take a natural resource from Pinellas Park to sell to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, then the city should have representation on the board. (Pinellas Park indirectly gets its drinking water from the utility because it buys its supply from Pinellas County.)

"I'll give you the site as far as I'm concerned, charge you a dollar for a million years, but not without a seat on the board for the city of Pinellas Park," Taylor said.

Failing that concession, Taylor said he would "crusade" against the plant being built anywhere in mid Pinellas County.

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