With no expert witnesses, no high-powered lawyers, no massive public rallies, the Ecology Party of Florida seemed to have little in its arsenal to battle a juggernaut like Progress Energy Florida.Even so, convinced of its cause to combat the utility's proposed Levy County nuclear plant, the environmental group continued since February 2009 pleading with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to carefully review the project's impact on wetlands, floodplains and special aquatic sites.A confidential donor heard them. Providing an undisclosed amount of money, the donor helped with what the group could not afford on its own and breathed new life into a challenge that is the last major hurdle the utility faces from the public before it can obtain its federal operating license.When the Ecology Party appears today before the commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, it will bring the weight of a former water management district director, a former state environmental protection official with a doctorate including specialties in hydrology and ecology, and a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer, who regularly handles nuclear cases. Without the new team, the group would have had to rely on mostly supporters who aren't lawyers and don't carry the lofty professional credentials.The Ecology Party promotes environmental, feminist, fair-trade, nonviolent and animal rights issues. Its website states that it has spent about $25,000 on representation leading to and for the hearing, with the bulk of the expenses coming after the group picked up the expert support last spring. Progress Energy Florida and its new parent company, Duke Energy, still have deeper pockets, but now the battle won't appear so much like a few recreational gunmen against a professional army."I would have been slitting my wrist if I had to do this alone," said Cara Campbell, chairwoman of the Florida Ecology Party. The Ecology Party, formed in 2008 with about 125 members, also is backed by the nonprofit environmental organization the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Maryland-based group.In its case today, the Ecology Party and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service will argue that the environmental studies by Progress and federal analysts failed to adequately consider the full impact of the proposed two-reactor nuclear plant the utility wants to build on 5,000 acres in Levy County.The project, the group says, threatens to deplete groundwater to levels that could lead to devastating wildfires; induce sinkhole activity; lower water levels in wetlands, lakes and streams; and cause the loss of trees and wildlife, among other things. In particular, the group says drawing the groundwater would harm the Big King and Little King springs, which provide water for manatees.In addition, using 80 million gallons of water from the Cross Florida Barge Canal will draw saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico as far as 9 miles inland up to the reactor site for cooling towers, endangering freshwater habitats."The area of the proposed (nuclear plant) and surrounding vicinity is a highly complex and sensitive ecological area where plants and animals have evolved to depend upon natural seasonal fluctuations and periods of drought," Sydney Bacchus, a hydroecologist with Applied Environmental Services, said in written testimony for the hearing. "They are not adapted to the results of man-induced alterations."Added Campbell: Progress is "fighting with your rate money to destroy your aquifer. They haven't done the studies they need to do. There's no way for them to know what will happen once they start sucking the water out."Progress Energy argues that the water demands of the proposed nuclear plant are minimal. For example, the project proposes to draw about 1.6 million gallons per day of groundwater — the equivalent of what Nestle had asked for in recent years for water bottling operations in Madison and Jefferson counties — and as much as 5.8 million gallons for short periods, a fraction of the regional flow within the Upper Floridan Aquifer, from where the utility would draw water."The direct, indirect and cumulative effects on local and regional water resources from active groundwater withdrawals during operation of the (plant) are small," Jeffrey Lehnan, a hydroecologist hired by Progress Energy, wrote in response to Bacchus' testimony.In addition, Kevin Robertson, a fire ecology research scientist, stated in his written testimony that in his opinion, the amount of water drawn for the nuclear plant is too small to increase wildfires."There is no credible scientific link between predicted levels of dewatering … due to the construction and operation of the (plant) and an increase in wildfire frequency," Robertson said. At a public hearing before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in January, dozens of the Levy project's opponents spoke out against the plant, noting the impact on the Floridan Aquifer and the Cross Florida Barge Canal as the utility draws water and digs 100 feet into the ground to lay the foundation for the plant. Board members had not seen the kind of opposition raised at that hearing in other cases."I've been doing this for eight years, and this is the largest number of people who have come forward," administrative Judge Alex S. Karlin said at the conclusion of the January hearing.In addition to environmental concerns, the Levy project would be the most costly nuclear plant in U.S. history at $24 billion. It isn't expected to come online until at least 2024.Progress says the plant is needed to meet future electricity demand and to diversify its sources of energy in Florida. But even if Progress wins the environmental challenge, the utility will have to wait at least until federal regulators develop guidelines for disposing of nuclear waste before the license is issued — a process expected to take at least two years.Because Progress' Crystal River plant — currently its sole nuclear reactor in Florida — is broken and may never return to service, the utility says it faces an overwhelming dependence on natural gas. By 2015, Progress' electricity production from natural gas could reach 76 percent.While gas prices are at historic lows because of an enormous supply of domestic natural gas, Progress and the state worry that rates could spike because the fuel's cost has been volatile in the past.Campbell, the Ecology Party chairwoman, said all of the concerns about Levy — from cost to environmental — show the project should not move forward."I feel great about our case," Campbell said. "I just hope the political pressures on the boards don't outweigh the common sense of saving the environment."Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.