RIVERVIEW — Tampa Electric Co. is entering a crucial stretch in the approval process for its plan to convert part of Big Bend Power Station to natural gas, and the plant's neighbors are paying close attention.
For three hours Monday night, Tampa Bay-area residents on both sides of the issue packed into a small conference room at the back of the Riverview Hilton Garden Inn to weigh in on the proposal. It was standing-room only for the roughly 100 who attended the public comment portion of the five-day site certification hearing. A large Great Dane that someone had brought along marked the beginning of the comment line.
"I'm here because I'm concerned about my property. I'm concerned about my family, and I'm concerned about my health," said Nina Tatlock, an Apollo Beach resident. "I say we need to save our planet —our planet Earth — and just say no to coal and to fracked gas or natural gas."
Presided over by administrative law judge Francine Ffolkes, the hearing allowed Tampa Electric, groups such as the Sierra Club and the general public to present evidence for the record. It was meant to inform Ffolkes' recommendation to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Siting Coordination Office on whether to approve the project. Nearly 40 people from local communities addressed the judge Monday, with about two-thirds opposing the plan.
"We are not going to let (Tampa Electric) go forward with this fracked gas plan," Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said at a rally organized by the Sierra Club before the public comment portion. "It does not make any sense in this day and age for them to do that."
Kemp was one of three public officials who spoke against the plan. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith spoke, as did St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who told the judge she drove an hour to the meeting to speak against approval.
Tampa Electric is proposing to replace one of its four coal-fired generators at Big Bend with a combined-cycle natural gas generator, and to retire one of the others, by 2023. The new natural gas generator would produce more electricity than both coal generators.
Much of the dissent came from residents concerned that Tampa Electric is proposing to replace one fossil fuel source that contributes to climate change with another, and about the long-term economic costs of a natural gas plant.
But others, such as Apollo Beach resident Jill Scott, said they just want a solution to issues they deal with daily. Scott supports the plan because she hopes it will rid her home of the dust and ash from the coal-fired portion of the plant.
"I have been hosing off my patio once a month for 30 years," she said. "I have to change my (pool) filter every month, and it's black."
Local business owners and representatives for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation and the Plant City Economic Development Corporation expressed concerns about a higher cost of doing business should the plant not be converted to natural gas.
John Moyle, a lawyer for the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, also spoke in favor of the plan, saying natural gas was a better option than coal. The group often weighs in on issues that come before the Florida Public Service Commission, many times opposing utilities.
"Proper utility planning is done by utility companies that have expertise in figuring out what kind of (energy) mix to provide," he said. "New combined-cycle natural gas is efficient."
Judge Ffolkes will have until May to submit her recommendation to the state siting board, which consists of the governor and cabinet and will ultimately decide if Tampa Electric gets the green light on its project. That decision, however, won't happen until at least July.
Contact Malena Carollo at email@example.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.