TARPON SPRINGS — Despite a challenge from a local resident, the state Department of Environmental Protection has granted Tarpon Springs a needed permit to build a $45 million reverse osmosis water treatment facility.
Last April, Henry Ross of Tarpon Springs requested a hearing with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings. He wanted DEP to deny an environmental permit the city needed to build the water treatment plant.
During the September hearing, Ross claimed that manatees, sea grass, sea turtles and the habitat would be adversely affected by effluent that would be discharged into an industrial canal.
In December the administrative law judge determined that Ross lacked standing to challenge the project and did not present any evidence to prove his allegations. On Jan. 28, DEP awarded the permit to the city.
Ross now has 30 days to appeal. City officials expect an appeal.
In addition, Ross filed a similar complaint with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, asking it to deny another permit the city needs. That matter was heard last month and a ruling has yet to be made.
Ross did not return phone calls for this article.
The reverse osmosis plant would produce drinking water by pushing brackish, or salty, water through special filtering membranes. The brackish water would be pumped from 17 wells drilled 100 to 150 feet deep north of the Anclote River. The resulting salt concentrate, or brine, would be flushed into an industrial canal that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The plant would be allowed to discharge 2.79 million gallons of industrial wastewater per day.
Ross argued the city should instead use an underground injection well system that sends the discharge back into the ground. Bob Robertson, Tarpon Springs' public services program manager, said use of injection wells was considered but was determined to not be feasible.
The city started the permitting process for the treatment plant in 2006 and views Ross' efforts as an attempt to delay the project.
Robertson said the project is about seven months behind schedule. With the expected appeal, construction could start as much as a year late.
Robertson said the city has already spent $110,000 to hire lawyers and experts to fight off Ross' challenges.
"The delay could risk an increase in cost (of the project), " Robertson said, and the city must continue to purchase water from Pinellas County. "And there's the volatile bond market and we might not get a low interest rate."
Robertson said the delays do not endanger the $20.1 million grant the city received from Swiftmud to build the facility.
In 2000, Ross filed a challenge to the city's plan to dredge the Anclote River. That challenge delayed the project for five to six years and probably cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, City Manager Mark LeCouris said.
City Commissioner Jeff Larsen said he was "concerned by anything that delays the (water) project."
"It's going to be a good project and beneficial to the residents of Tarpon Springs," Larsen said. "… I would ask that he (Ross) follow the advice of the experts in this field."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at [email protected] or (727)-445-4174