Desalination plant may finally be up and running this week

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

APOLLO BEACH -- The Tampa Bay Water desalination plant's woes may end in a week or so, utility officials said.

The $110-million desal plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, was supposed to be finished by the end of December. Construction of the plant, which is next door to Tampa Electric Co.'s Apollo Beach power plant, is finished.

Yet it won't be producing its full capacity of 25-million gallons of water a day for several more months. Tampa Bay Water officials hope it will produce 3-million gallons per day by the end of this week. Covanta Energy, the contractor building the plant, missed its December deadline and a Feb. 6 deadline for producing at least 3-million gallons per day.

Now Tampa Bay Water officials aren't sure Covanta will meet a March 4 deadline to produce 12-million gallons per day.

"There's a possibility they could make it," said Ken Herd, Tampa Bay Water's engineering and projects manager.

Herd said Covanta and Tampa Bay Water were still working on the filters that screen impurities out of the salty water that the plant pulls in from the power plant's outfall. They are trying to ensure that the water is as pure as possible before it goes through the membranes that take the brine out. If the water is not pure enough, Herd said, it could damage the expensive membranes, which are supposed to last five to seven years.

Covanta officials had told Tampa Bay Water for months that the project was going so well it was actually ahead of schedule -- until mid December, when they announced they had hit such serious construction delays that they needed an additional 123 days and $1.8-million.

Tampa Bay Water officials agreed to give Covanta five more months and an additional $500,000, but they set a series of deadlines with escalating penalties. Because Covanta missed its last deadline, it already owes Tampa Bay Water 66-million gallons of free water.

Covanta has had other struggles. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy last year, triggering a financial crisis for the desal plant when the company was unable to post a construction bond. However, Tampa Bay Water has stuck with the company, which will operate the plant as well as build it.

During Monday's tour, Tampa Bay Water and Swiftmud officials, who are helping foot the bill for both water projects, downplayed the delays. They noted that only 18 months have passed since work began on the ambitious water supply project.

The water from the desal plant is not vital to serving Tampa Bay Water's customers until spring. Heavy winter rains have allowed the state's largest wholesale utility to cut back on its pumping of water from underground wells.