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Coming Clean

In 1999, Tampa Electric's "dirty dinosaurs" were working overtime to feed the energy demands of a booming Hillsborough County. Together, the Gannon plant and the Big Bend Power Station -- which began operating in 1957 and 1970, respectively -- were cranking out about 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

The two coal-fired plants were also spewing about 240,000 tons of smog and soot in 1998, making TECO one of the worst polluters in the state. The pollution also made TECO a perfect target for the Environmental Protection Agency, which was leading a crackdown on coal-fired power plants. "Massive" amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from TECO's smokestacks were contributing to "some of the most severe environmental problems facing the nation today," the federal government alleged in a lawsuit.

TESTING: Testing: TECO environmental technician Bob Barthelette tests water outside the Big Bend plant.While half a dozen other utility companies facing similar actions hunkered down for drawn-out courtroom battles, TECO took a different course. It negotiated a settlement with the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, paying a $3.5-million fine and investing $1 billion in emissions-controlling equipment.

"We decided that it was important for us to take a leadership role in the environmental arena," says Greg Nelson, TECO's director of environmental, health and safety.

The decision appears to have paid off. A $750-million overhaul converted the Gannon plant -- now known as Bayside -- to a cleaner-burning natural gas and reduced nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 99%. Sulfur emissions from Big Bend, near Apollo Beach, dropped by about 89% over the past five years thanks to TECO's installation of a modern flue gas desulfurization, or "scrubber," system.

TECO's newer Polk Power Station -- between Tampa and Orlando -- is one of only a few in the U.S. to reuse exhaust heat through a system known as "integrated gasification combined cycle" to produce more electricity and dramatically cut CO2 emissions.

And TECO is marketing 95% of its coal combustion byproducts -- a significantly higher amount than others in the industry. "These products go into things like the cement industry, the wallboard industry and are used for roofing, shingling and blasting material for cleaning hulls of ships," TECO spokesman Ross Bannister says.

TECO is also toying with using technology to further lower levels of nitrogen oxide at its Big Bend plant, and at Polk, the company has been experimenting with biomass -- in this case a pulverized grass that's blended into the fuel stream.

Holly Binns, field director for Florida Public Interest Research Group, says she is pleased with TECO's moves, which she says also make good business sense. Federal regulations are only going to get tougher, she says. "They are very well positioned to be industry leaders when that does happen."