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Kids sent in to fight desalination plan

They chanted, waved signs and mugged for the cameras. Of course, a few seized the moment to whack each other over the head and tumble in the grass.

Welcome to citizen activism 101, the preschool version. The neighborhood campaign against a proposed desalination plant pulled out its secret weapon Wednesday, about 60 children from the Write Start Learning Center.

Not that the kids knew what desalination means, but as one teacher said, what they could understand is that someone wants to put garbage in their park.

They also understood that after mugging for reporters they would get to run around Walsingham Park. The life of a 4-year-old is pretty simple when it comes down to it: Save the world, then you get to play.

The hard part is left for the adults; more than 30 gathered at the park south of Largo to complain about what they see as the county's attempt to push the desalination plant through without public comment.

"We didn't have a choice in this," said J.T. Savage, a nearby resident who took time off from work to attend the protest. "I agree we have a water problem, but this is happening just so fast and behind our backs that it sounds crooked."

Savage said he learned about the proposed desalination plant in a newspaper article about three weeks ago. By that time, the county had drafted a contract with Du Pont for construction and operation of the plant.

County commissioners probably will vote Nov. 18 on the contract, which calls for Du Pont to provide the county with 10-million gallons of drinking water a day at a cost of about $1.84 per 1,000 gallons.

Du Pont will spend $20-million to build the research plant on land it will lease from the county for a nominal amount, probably $1 a year. Du Pont hopes to develop its reverse-osmosis technology at the plant, experimenting with new membranes that filter salt out of groundwater.

In reverse osmosis, water is pumped from the ground and pushed through a synthetic membrane at high pressure.

While the process has been around since the 1960s, it is new to the nearby residents. No one from the county or Du Pont has answered their questions, residents say.

They want to know whether the plant will smell and whether it will be noisy. And they want to know what effect the plant will have on their irrigation wells and whether pumping the water out of the ground will cause sinkholes.

The quick answer, county and Du Pont officials say, is no. They will host a forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service, 12175 125th St. N, near Walsingham Park.

For residents, the forum is coming too late.

Maryanne Sobocinski, who led the protest, said she wants the County Commission to delay the vote on the contract and start anew on selecting a site.

She lambasted the county for proposing an industrial research plant in a county park.

County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said the county might have erred in not involving the public earlier.

"The important part is that there is no done deal until the contract is signed," Stewart said. "There is still time to slow the process down if we need to answer those questions."

Stewart said he supports desalination and while he is concerned about environmental effects, he has faith that those questions will be answered during the permitting process.

Du Pont must receive a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to withdraw 14-million gallons of brackish water from the ground each day and another permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to inject the briny waste from the process deep into the ground.

If the permits are denied, the project will die.