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County praises desalination plant proposal

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The question Tuesday wasn't whether the County Commission would endorse a proposal to build a $20-million desalination plant in central Pinellas County. It was whether it was too early to start thinking about building a second one.

Commissioners praised the deal proposed by Delaware-based Du Pont, saying the project is a landmark step in solving the area's water problems.

"This also addresses all the criticism Pinellas County has received for not developing local (water) sources and that we keep sucking it from our neighbors to the north," County Administrator Fred Marquis said.

Du Pont's proposed research facility could provide one-seventh of the county's drinking water, lessening the burden on groundwater, which comes mostly from Pasco County well fields.

Du Pont plans to pump brackish water out of the ground, filter it through a synthetic membrane and then deliver it to the county water system. The leftover brine would be injected deep into the ground.

The county and Du Pont have spent seven months working out details. Du Pont would build the reverse-osmosis plant on 5 acres of county land at the north entrance to Walsingham Park. The county would agree to buy 10-million gallons of drinking water a day from Du Pont at about $1.84 per 1,000 gallons.

Consumers could see their county water bills increase about 5 percent.

While the possibility of a second plant is still wishful thinking, the 20-year contract discussed Tuesday is all but a done deal. Commissioners will likely vote on the contract within the next three weeks.

That's what worries some neighbors. They say the county has pushed the project through without public input.

On Tuesday, commissioners told staff to arrange a public forum to allow residents to ask questions about the plant. But it was unclear whether that will happen before commissioners vote on the contract.

"Once they have contracts ready to sign, what good are public hearings?" said Mike Demma, a resident of adjacent Heritage Place.

Maryanne Sobocinski, another Heritage Place resident, said she is concerned the county is giving away park land for a desalination plant. The county intends to keep the land open to the public by turning the plant into an "eco-tourism" attraction.

Other residents who use wells are concerned whether pumping the brackish water out of the ground will pull saltwater into the shallow freshwater aquifer.

Sobocinski also says no one has told her what kinds of odors or sound the plant might produce.

Du Pont officials say their studies show that the desalination plant will not damage the aquifer, though it will probably affect it over time. But they say they will have wells to monitor potential problems. They also say noise and odor will not be a factor.

Before it can build the plant, Du Pont will need a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to pump the water and another from the Department of Environmental Protection to inject the brine into the ground.

If it gets its permits, construction could begin in April. However, if the water district doesn't allow it to withdraw enough water to produce 10-million gallons of drinking water a day, the deal could be killed, said Thomas Missimer, a hydrogeologist for Du Pont.

The water district and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority are seeking proposals from companies for a desalination plant that will produce up to five times more drinking water than the one Du Pont hopes to build.

Proposals are expected to be in by the beginning of December. Du Pont plans to bid on that plant, too, a company official said Tuesday.

_ Pinellas County government reporter Joe Newman can be reached at 445-4166 by telephone or at by e-mail.