TARPON SPRINGS — A Tarpon Springs resident who held up a city dredging project for six years over environmental concerns is trying to put the brakes on the city's efforts to build a $45 million water treatment plant.
On April 19, just two days before the deadline for petitions on the project, Henry Ross requested a hearing with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings. He is requesting that the city be denied an environmental permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"I saw in the newspaper what was going to be discharged into the Gulf (of Mexico)," Ross said. "In that same notice, it said that the discharge may not meet all the surface water quality standards."
As required by law, Tarpon Springs ran a legal notice in local newspapers that alerted residents of its DEP permit request. That notice listed copper, nickel, selenium, zinc and other elements that will be washed into the gulf.
City Manager Mark LeCouris told commissioners Tuesday that Ross "cost taxpayers probably hundreds of thousands of dollars when he held up our dredging project for five to six years."
Ross "has made it very clear as we attempted to speak with him that … he has every intention of holding up this project as long as he can," LeCouris said.
In 2000, Ross filed a similar request in an attempt to prevent the city from dredging along the Anclote River. The matter took years to resolve.
In the recent petition, Ross asked that Tarpon Springs be denied a permit that would allow a reverse osmosis treatment plant to discharge 2.79 million gallons a day of industrial wastewater that would eventually end up in the gulf.
In his petition, Ross cites the potential damage to manatees and wildlife habitat. He also said the city and the DEP have not completed the proper testing, including a geological study of groundwater.
The petition is being reviewed by the Office of General Counsel, said Ana Gibbs, a DEP spokeswoman.
Bob Robertson, Tarpon's public services program manager, said he was surprised by the last-minute challenge and expects the hearing request to be granted.
That hearing could push the project back a minimum of three months, with a construction start in October and a completion date of April 2012, Robertson said.
While confident that the project will move forward, Robertson is concerned that a long-term delay could cause the city to miss out on prime bond rates.
Robertson said Tarpon Springs' requested method of treating the discharge is safe.
"It's not harmful to the gulf because it will be properly mixed with canal water before it reaches the gulf," Robertson said.
Tarpon Springs' proposed project calls for a reverse-osmosis treatment facility that treats brackish, or salty, water pulled from 17 wells drilled 100 to 150 feet deep north of the Anclote River. The resulting salt concentrate, or brine, will be flushed into an industrial canal that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Instead of sending treated water back into the gulf, Ross said the city should use an underground injection well system to send the discharge back into the ground.
But Robertson said that method is relatively new to this area and requires a very deep well so that the discharge doesn't mix with the potable water supply. He said a condition of one of the project's permits is to continue exploring that avenue.
"At the time, there were not successful deep injection wells, and surface water was the best choice," Robertson said. "Remember, we started the (surface water) permitting process in 2006, and it's now four years later."
In addition to the DEP process, Tarpon has been trying to satisfy the Southwest Florida Water Management District's concerns for more than two years. The city recently received a June 19 extension to address Swiftmud's concerns, including wetland impacts, potential saltwater intrusions and the potential impact to the Anclote River.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174