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    Seawater desalination plant is closer to reality

    The permit application to build the plant is complete, the DEP tells the contractor. But the agency's schedule for final action could delay the start of construction.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- If only for morale reasons, the news couldn't have come at a better time.

    With the region mired in deepening drought, Tampa Bay Water learned Friday that its eagerly awaited seawater desalination plant, a major piece of the complex plan to bring new drinking water supplies to the area, had cleared a major obstacle on its way to getting built.

    The Department of Environmental Protection has notified the contractor, S&W Water, that its permit application is complete. After weeks of filling data and information holes in the application, watching valuable time ticking away, officials say the way now appears clear for final project approval.

    There's only one hitch.

    The schedule calls for final agency action on April 23, nearly a month after S&W Water's contractual obligation to TBW to have the process finished. DEP's schedule would delay the start of construction and could make the plant late in coming on line.

    This would violate the time line for new water projects contained in the intergovernmental agreement that dictates Tampa Bay Water's operations and could -- potentially -- threaten TBW's partnership agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District under which Swiftmud is contributing $183-million to defray capital costs of new water projects and to fund water conservation programs.

    "Yes, construction could be delayed if DEP sticks to that schedule," said Tim De Foe, director of project development for S&W Water. "There are options, the potential for acceleration of construction, but we will deal with that when the time comes. Meanwhile, we're very pleased that DEP has taken this step, which sets in motion the time clock that will allow us to bring desalinated water to the region."

    Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for TBW, said DEP's timetable originally had an earlier date for final action.

    "That was better for us, and we're still hopeful that DEP will change the schedule back," Robinson said.

    Meanwhile, another potential delay hangs over the project. Even assuming DEP issues the final permit, the 25-million-gallon-a-day desal plant still could face legal challenges from residents who live in the Big Bend area of southern Hillsborough County and don't want a desal plant near their homes.

    They say the area is already blighted by a TECO electrical plant, and they have expressed concerns about the desal plant's environmental impacts on Tampa Bay.

    While legal challenges could be expedited by the State Department of Administration, as others have been in the past, the project could see anywhere from two to three months of at least partial down time while arguments are heard and a decision made.

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