Desalinization plan nears
reality in talks with city


By Robert Preer, Globe Correspondent, 2/6/2000

Seven years after a small local consulting
company first floated the unlikely idea, a
desalinization plant that could serve much of
southeastern Massachusetts is on the verge of
becoming a reality.

Brockton city officials say they are close to signing a
contract to buy 11/2 million gallons of water a day
from the proposed plant, which would be located on
the wooded banks of the Taunton River in Dighton.

Once the deal with Brockton is sealed, the
consulting company, Bluestone Energy Services Inc.
of Braintree and its partner, the Houston-based
water company AquaSource Inc., plan to move
quickly toward construction of the $40 million facility,
which would open in 2002.

The plant's developers hope to sign up other cities
and towns as wholesale customers and have had
preliminary discussions with officials in more than a
dozen municipalities, including Weymouth, Norton,
Sharon, Stoughton, Avon, Whitman, Abington,
Rockland, Holbrook, Easton, and Hanson. All of
these communities have struggled with water
shortages in recent years.

''We see Brockton as the flagship of a large
system,'' said Peter M. Fairbanks, Bluestone's
president.

The one regulatory hurdle remaining is approval of a
state environmental impact report. A draft
environmental impact report has already been
certified, and local officials do not believe the final
state report is a big obstacle.

''I believe the plant could be ready before 2002,''
said Brockton water systems manager Brian
Creedon.

Drawing from the brackish waters of the Taunton
River, the plant initially would produce 31/2 million
gallons of water daily but in the future could process
10 million gallons a day or more, according to the
project's proponents.

The facility, which has already received preliminary
approvals from the state Executive Office of
Environmental Affairs, would be located 14 miles
upstream from the Braga Bridge in Fall River, where
the Taunton River empties into Mount Hope Bay.
Saltwater from the ocean washes into the river
there, flowing in and out with the tides all the way to
the city of Taunton.

Water treated by the plant would be sent northward
on a new water main to be installed along an
abandoned rail bed 14 miles through Raynham,
Easton, and Stoughton. The water would be
distributed locally through municipal systems.

Desalinization is a technology found mainly on
islands and in deserts. Only a handful of large
desalinization plants operate in the United States
and none in the Northeast. A plant is being built in
Cape May, N.J., where saltwater intrusion has
contaminated local wells.

Desalinization is hardly a new concept. Greek
sailors distilled seawater for drinking as early as the
4th century B.C. Many of the older desalinization
plants use the same process - heating salt water
and capturing the vapor, which is condensed to form
fresh water.

A more modern technique - and the one that would
be used at the Dighton plant - is reverse osmosis, in
which saltwater is forced through a membrane. Salt
and other impurities are left on one side, while
freshwater flows to the other.

The main disadvantage of desalinization is cost.
Considerable energy is required, especially when
compared with pumping water from a well or
reservoir.

''Just about any place on the ocean is a candidate
for desalinization,'' said Bill Lauer, program manager
for the Denver-based American Water Works
Association. ''It really comes down to whether there
are alternative supplies available.''

Southeastern Massachusetts, which is the state's
fastest growing region, has been struggling to find
sufficient water, and many municipal wells are either
exhausted or polluted. Bans on outside watering are
routine in many communities.

The desalinization plant is the brainchild of Bluestone
Energy Services, a five-person environmental
engineering company, formerly located in
Marshfield. In 1993, a newly hired engineer, Jeffrey
H. Hanson, now a vice president, suggested building
a desalinization plant to meet growing water needs.

The area near the mouth of the Taunton River would
be an ideal spot, Hanson argued. Billions of gallons
of water flow in and out of it every day - providing a
virtually limitless supply, as well as abundant water
to dilute the plant's waste - a highly salty brine.

Hanson and other Bluestone officials pitched the
idea to a special state environmental committee,
which was studying the water needs of
Southeastern Massachusetts. In its final report,
issued in late 1993, the panel listed desalinization as
one of three options for the region. The others were
connecting to the Massachusetts Water Resources
Authority and diverting the Taunton River upstream.

Bluestone, though, had no resources to make the
plan happen. The company was able to win a $1
million grant from Eastern Utilities, the Brockton
area electric company, which wanted to find a
solution to the region's water shortages.

Bluestone used the grant to prepare a preliminary
environmental impact report. Still, the firm had no
way of building the plant.

Then, last year, AquaSource appeared on the
scene. The company was founded in 1997 by
Duquesne Light, a Pittsburgh-based electric
company. Under electricity deregulation, Duquesne
Light had been forced to sell its Pennsylvania power
plants. It used the money to form AquaSource and
get into the water business.

AquaSource is now the largest private water
company in Texas and owns systems across the
country. Looking to expand into Massachusetts, the
company agreed to build and operate the
desalinization plant Bluestone had proposed.

AquaSource is still cash rich from the sale of the
power plants and could build the plant without selling
bonds, according to Richard Lima, vice president of
business development for AquaSource.

Meanwhile, the other potential solutions fell out of
favor. Environmentalists adamantly opposed
diversion of the Taunton River. And local officials
were wary of the MWRA, an independent authority
many localities accuse of taking a heavy-handed
approach with ratepayers and municipal
governments.

''We basically have outlived the other proposals,''
Fairbanks said.

Plans now call for the desalinization plant to
supplement - not replace - local water supplies.
Brockton's main water source would continue to be
Silver Lake, while other communities would still use
local wells and reservoirs.

Water from the desalinization plant would represent
less than 15 percent of the city's total water use.

''The key is that it is supplemental,'' said Fairbanks.
''If you bought all of your water from this, it would be
too expensive.''

Water bills for the average Brockton household likely
would increase $3 to $4 a month when the new
plant goes on line, according to AquaSource and
Bluestone officials.

The main regulatory obstacle now is approval of a
final state environmental impact report. Company
officials expect to file the report later this month.
Approvals from local conservation commissions also
will be needed.

The state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs
reviewed and approved the initial plans. The
agency's main concerns have been about the new
water main that would bring the water north from the
plant.

The main pipeline would run along the same rail bed
where the Massachusetts Bay Transportation
Authority wants to build a commuter railroad to Fall
River and New Bedford. The towns of Easton and
Raynham have sued the MBTA to block the rail line,
arguing it would threaten sensitive wetlands,
endangered plants and animals, and local wells.

Fairbanks said the water line could be built
regardless of the railroad's fate. He said he does
not see environmental obstacles to the pipeline.

''We're considerably different from a railroad. You
put in a pipe in the ground, and it's done,'' Fairbanks
said.

Only formal approvals of the mayor and City Council
are needed for the deal with Brockton to be
complete. ''It has gone beyond negotiating,'' said
Mayor John T. Yunits Jr. ''We are working on the
final details.''

Water woes have plagued Brockton for nearly two
decades. Because of short water supplies, the state
imposed a building ban that stifled development in
the city in the 1980s. For years, residents have not
been able to water their lawns or wash their cars.

Brian Creedon, Brockton's water systems manager,
said an attraction of the desalinization plant is that it
could be operating faster than developing new wells
or connecting to the MWRA. ''Time is important to
us,'' he said.

AquaSource is committed to building the plant once
the Brockton deal is complete but needs to sell an
additional 2 million gallons a day to break even on
the project, according to company officials. They are
confident other communities will want to buy water.

''It's a big decision we have made, and we are
comfortable with it,'' said Richard Lima, vice
president of business development for AquaSource.

Other communities clearly are interested, and the
interest has grown since Brockton signaled it would
buy water from the plant.

''It obviously gives the project a lot more credibility,''
said Weymouth Mayor David Madden. ''I'm excited
about the possibility. This gives us another avenue
to explore.''

Michael Milanoski, director of operations and
economic development for the South Shore
Tri-Town Development Corp., said Brockton's
commitment ''certainly makes the deal more real.''

The Tri-Town corporation needs to find water to
redevelop the former South Weymouth Naval Air
Station, which spans Weymouth, Rockland, and
Abington.

Norton has run out of potential well sites and could
purchase up to 1 million gallons per day, according
to Duane Knapp, the town's water and sewer
superintendent. ''The number one solution for us now
is desalinization,'' he said.

Stoughton is considering the desalinization plant as
well as a possible MWRA connection, according to
town engineer James E. Miller. ''We haven't come to
any conclusions yet,'' he said.