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Tampa Electric's Big Bend changes face increased opposition

Members of the public and environmental groups told the Hillsborough County Commission of their concerns over the project's cost and health and environmental impacts.

Tampa Electric Co. is facing increasing resistance to its plan to convert a coal-powered unit at its Big Bend Power Station to natural gas.

Members of the public and environmental groups spoke at a Hillsborough County Commission meeting Thursday to express concerns over the project's cost and health and environmental impacts, with many wearing "No fracked gas in the bay" stickers. While many see gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, environmental advocates say it isn't clean enough, citing a preference for renewable sources such as solar energy.

"Why now do we want to go backward and accept the plan of (Tampa Electric) to use fossil fuels?" Robin Kennedy, a South Tampa resident said.

Among those speaking against the utility's plans were representatives from the League of Women Voters, NAACP and the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club filed to formally intervene in the process in October.

Tampa Electric announced plans last May to convert Unit 1 at the station to natural gas and shut down Unit 2, where five workers were killed in a 2017 accident, by 2021.

The Thursday hearing gave the board, which has no regulatory say in the power station's modernization process, an opportunity to comment on the plans and add conditions Tampa Electric must follow in the process.

While multiple commissioners expressed concern about not having enough time to adequately add conditions and urged Tampa Electric to focus on longer-term renewable energy, Commissioners Sandy Murman and Stacy White emphasized staying in good standing with the utility.

"We have a great relationship with Tampa Electric," Murman said, "and I don't want to see anything happen to that relationship."

The Big Bend plant is located in Murman's district. Murman's motion to approve the board's analysis with comments passed 7-0.

"This project is a win for customers and the environment," Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Tampa Electric, said. "It will save our customers money, and it will improve the land, water and air emissions at Big Bend."

The project's site certification hearing will be March 11-15 at the Hilton Garden Inn Tampa Riverview Brandon Hotel with public comment March 11 from 6-9 p.m.

Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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