December 19, 2014

Desalination

Salty Solution?

Five years and $40 million over budget, the largest desalination plant in North America is finally producing fresh water for the Tampa Bay Region.

Cynthia Barnett | 5/1/2007


Pipeline: The final product is pumped 14.5 miles through underground pipes to Tampa Bay Water's finishing plant in Brandon. In the background is Tampa Electric Co.'s plant.

Building

Ken Herd, Tampa Bay Water's director of operations, says there was no way to anticipate what happened next: In May 2000, barely a year after it and Poseidon won the bid, Boston-based Stone & Webster, one of the world's largest and most respected engineering firms, declared bankruptcy. In December 2000, Poseidon hired New Jersey-based energy giant Covanta (which also had no desal experience) to take over construction. A year later, Covanta filed for bankruptcy after the energy crisis in California crippled its cash flow.

What some saw as bad luck or bad choices by Maxwell and Tampa Bay Water, Maxwell viewed as mismanagement by Poseidon. Now 63, with close-cropped white hair and a goatee to match, Maxwell has an easygoing management style that masks a determination to have things his way. Things wouldn't have gone so badly, he believed, if he'd had more control over the process.

Indeed, if there's one thing Maxwell didn't like about the contract, it was that it left too much control in the hands of the private contractor. In the wake of the bankruptcies in spring 2002, Maxwell persuaded Tampa Bay Water's board to buy the plant from Poseidon -- even though Poseidon insisted it was on track to complete it.

" I can't imagine that there's been another public works project in our generation that's drawn this much interest."

That decision left Maxwell in for heavy pummeling. Critics such as state Sen. Ronda Storms, a former board member and Hillsborough County commissioner who opposed buying the half-finished plant, say the move was about ego and control and put ratepayers at enormous risk. After the purchase, ratepayers -- not Poseidon -- were on the hook for cost overruns and other problems. And while it got rid of the solvent company, Tampa Bay Water stuck with the bankrupt company, Covanta, to finish the plant.

The board's position was that Tampa Bay Water's access to cheaper financing than the private companies would save taxpayers millions in bond fees as the plant was completed. Most important, the agency was ultimately responsible for making sure the region got the fresh water it needed. Poseidon had already jumped the most significant hurdle, environmental permitting. Maxwell and the board didn't expect that it would be hard to finish the plant.

On a spring day in 2003, the plant produced its first 3 million gallons of fresh water. Officials toasted each other with plastic cups. But their celebration was premature. The plant's key technology -- 10,000 reverse-osmosis membranes -- began to clog after a few weeks. The membranes, which cost $500 apiece, are supposed to last between five and seven years.

Under the original contract, Poseidon would have been responsible for fixing the membranes. Instead, the taxpayers were on the hook. Tampa Bay Water ultimately hired highly regarded American Water Pridesa (since acquired by Spain's Acciona Agua), which spent four years and $32 million on remediation.

Today, the plant looks very different from four years ago, when officials raised their plastic cups to toast what proved to be a misfire. Andy Shea, North American director for Acciona Agua, who was once with Poseidon, hints that the current firms won't make money on the plant either but are motivated by a sense of urgency in the global industry to get this plant online. "We're there to restore the luster originally envisioned for the Tampa Bay Saltwater Desalination Plant," Shea says.

Tags: Southwest, Energy & Utilities

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