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EPA study to follow decision on tar fuel

Published Sep. 13, 2005

The Environmental Protection Agency has assembled a team of scientists and engineers to study Orimulsion, the controversial fuel that Florida Power & Light wants to burn at a plant east of Tampa Bay.

But the EPA study will not be finished until months after Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet are due to make a decision about whether to allow the state's largest utility to proceed with its plans.

"Our primary interest is the truth," Tim Oppelt, director of the EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, said Monday. "Sometimes it takes a while."

The governor and Cabinet are slated to make their decision on the FP&L application next month. While the EPA lab will come up with a specific research proposal later this month, completion of the study would be unlikely before next year.

Some environmental groups opposed to Orimulsion want the state to postpone a decision until the EPA study is done. Suppose the EPA finds Orimulsion is bad, said Mary Sheppard of the Florida Sierra Club, but the state has already granted FP&L its permit.

"It's extremely difficult once you've given them a permit to do anything about it," said Sheppard, the group's clean air chairman.

But state officials must make their decision based on the information that already has been submitted, said Catherine Archer of the state Department of Environmental Regulation.

FP&L officials believe there have been enough studies of Orimulsion to tell the governor and Cabinet everything they need to know.

"I don't know how much more the EPA can add," said utility spokesman Bill Swank.

The EPA is starting its investigation at the behest of Congress, which last October ordered the agency "to provide better scientific data" on the fuel, "because little is known about the risks associated with the introduction of this new product."

The order was included in an appropriations bill without naming any particular sponsor. The bill also did not say how such a study was to be paid for.

While the FP&L project would be the first in the nation to burn Orimulsion, Congress did not intend for the EPA study "in any way to interfere with or cause delay in any decision to permit or commercially use Orimulsion fuel," according to a letter from U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-California, who chairs the subcommittee that approved the study.

Orimulsion is a cheap and abundant fuel created by blending Venezuelan tar and water. Utility officials contend it would be cleaner to burn in their plant near the Manatee-Hillsborough County line than the fuel oil they use now and would lessen American dependence on foreign oil producers.

Opponents argue it will not save any money and will pollute the air. They contend it will be more difficult than oil to clean up should a tanker spill it in Tampa Bay. They also have suggested it could alter the genetic makeup of wildlife.

Oppelt said the EPA lab will probably study what would happen should a spill occur, and what sort of emissions an Orimulsion-burning plant would produce. If the lab can find a source of money for its study, the EPA team could start work by September.

FP&L has been battling to get permission to burn Orimulsion for nearly three years. The company won a major victory last month when an administrative judge recommended the state approve the use of the fuel. But the final decision rests with the governor and Cabinet, who voted previously to reject the utility's application, then were ordered by an appeals court to reconsider.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.