What went wrong? Depends who you ask.
The Tampa Bay seawater reverse osmosis (RO) plant was designed to produce an estimated 25 million gpd. Located adjacent to Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, it is currently the nation’s largest desalination plant.
In 1999, Tampa Bay officials awarded the main contract to S&W Water/Poseidon Resources JVC on a design, build, own, operate and transfer basis. Construction began in August 2001, and the plant began operations in March 2003. Since that time,
it has produced more than 4 billion gallons of drinking water for the region.
But the process wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Beginning in 2000, the first of three bankruptcies was filed by companies owning or overseeing the project. With the resulting complications, both financially and operationally, the plant became plagued by problems—severely impeding production. After the third bankruptcy, Tampa Bay Water took control of matters by buying out the others in March 2002.
While in operation, the desalinated water produced by the plant consistently fell far short of the intended output. A critical 14-day performance test done in May 2003 uncovered 31 deficiencies in the plant, the most serious of which was excessive membrane fouling that led to frequent shutdowns and inconsistent operations.
A few months later, Asian green mussels added to Tampa Bay Water’s nightmare by further clogging the
filters. Despite efforts to work out the problems, they continued through the summer and into the fall. In October, the plant still was unable to pass the two-week performance test required for final acceptance.
Both Tampa Bay Water and the RO system’s builder, Calif.-based Hydranautics, agreed there was a big problem.
Each proceeded to blame the other.
By December, a federal judge got involved to help reach a
resolution. Mediation attempts gave way to lawsuits filed on both sides. Both are still pending.
In March of this year, Hydranautics filed a federal lawsuit in Florida asking a judge to rule that it had honored the contract to build a working RO system and was not responsible for the plant’s problems.
Hydranautics maintains it was hired only to build the actual reverse osmosis system and that its performance depends on how well the related components and procedures work. In addition to the the RO system itself, the overall operation involves a seawater intake, a brine concentrate discharge system, chemical storage and dosing facilities, and 15 miles of product water transmission pipe.
“Due to no fault on the part of Hydranautics, the (membranes) were not being used or maintained in accordance with Hydranautics specifications,” the company wrote in its federal suit. “Hydranautics provided notice that the warranty for the (reverse osmosis) system would be void.”
That allegation launched Tampa Bay Water’s attorneys into action. In mid-June, Tampa Bay Water sued Hydranautics for
failing to build a working facility in Florida.
In the suit, the agency asserts that Hydranautics assumed responsibility for the plant’s performance and posted the $24 million bond to repair problems if the plant failed to work.
Tampa Bay officials insist that while the RO system does work, it does so only sporadically and has failed to reach production goals during several performance tests. Running the plant under those conditions would strain the system, making it too costly to operate.
The agency’s suit claims that over the course of the first few years of financial and construction complications, Hydranautics gradually assumed a more significant role in the project—eventually guaranteeing the plant would perform
The plant currently is producing about 12 million gpd and soon will be moved into stand-by mode—running at half capacity for about one week each month until the problems are repaired.
As of presstime, teams from two companies—American Water Services/Pridesa and Veolia Water—were conducting pilot testing at the facility to determine the best remedies. Each will then
submit a competitive proposal for a solution, its cost and the long-term operation of the plant.
On August 27, Tampa Bay Water’s board of directors will hold final interviews with each team. The board will select the best permanent solution at its regular monthly meeting on August 30.
For further information, visit www.tampabaywater.org.