CLEARWATER, Fla.(AP) -- Tampa Bay Water is going ahead with plans to build what could be the largest seawater desalination plant in the western hemisphere, hoping to keep water prices to its customers relatively low for decades.
``It is an historic moment, a kind of cornerstone of the new water projects,'' Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said in moving for approval of the plan.
Approval of the $120 million project got the nod from all nine board members of Tampa Bay Water, despite some lingering technical questions about the plant to be built at the Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend site on the shores of Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County.
The contract awarded to developer Stone & Webber of Boston calls for studies and a monitoring program that Hillsborough County officials want to ensure that the salty byproduct of the desalination process will not harm Tampa Bay.
``We're excited, no question,'' Stanley G. Genega, senior vice president of Stone & Webster, said after the vote. ``It is a great milestone. There are items to tidy up, but it's fair to say this was the biggest hurdle.''
If kept to schedule, the new Tampa Bay Water desalination plant should be providing 25 million gallons of water daily to Tampa Bay area residents by October 2002, or by Dec. 31, 2002, at the latest.
Failure to meet that pre-set timetable, according to the deal just signed with Stone & Webster, would require Stone & Webster to pay penalties to Tampa Bay Water.
Under the plan, Stone & Webster will charge $1.71 for every 1,000 gallons during the first year of the 30-year contract, with water costing an average of $2.08 for 1,000 gallons over the life of the deal.
The cost of the desalinated water would be reduced, though, by money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The water management district, known as Swiftmud for short, is to reduce the cost of 1,000 gallons of desalinated water to $1.17 to Tampa Bay Water customers for the first year, and to an average of $1.54 for the entire life of the contract.
Currently, public utilities in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey pay Tampa Bay Water a base rate of about $1.10 for 1,000 gallons.
One possible slowdown for the project could come if representatives of one of the losing bidders go ahead with threats of a lawsuit, claiming the bid review process was not fair. Such a delay, though, would not drag on indefinitely, according to John Wilcox, an attorney who is representing Tampa Bay Water in the contract talks.
``If a protest is filed after notification (of the contract award), there would be a stay of everything,'' Wilcox said. ``The protest would have to be filed within 10 days. There would be a hearing within 30 days, and then it would be a matter of waiting for the hearing examiner's decision.
``It wouldn't be more than a 90-120-day suspension. The state provides for an accelerated process in cases like this,'' he noted.
Tampa Bay Water, for its part, also will be required to complete a treatment plant to take the water provided by the desalination plant -- or pay Stone & Webster a daily fine of $28,475.
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