More Questions Than Answers As Palm Coast Desalination Project Scouts Locations
FlaglerLive | March 10, 2011
For the first time since 2009, and only the second time in the three years that the project has been discussed and planned, consultants for Palm Coast’s projected desalination plant solicited ideas and concerns from the public Wednesday, particularly about the desalination plant’s location, which has yet to be picked. The consultants, White Plains, N.Y.-based Malcolm Pirnie, heard more concern, skepticism and questions than approval. And to many of the questions posed by the public, the consultants had no answer yet, making it more difficult for the public to weigh the so-called Coquina Coast Seawater Desalination Project’s pros and cons as presented by the consultants.
An informed discussion, it was not, though the consultants revealed some data that was previously not known, they said more would come by late March, and they seemed genuinely open to public input about the chief criteria that should guide the choice of a location.
Without question, when given the opportunity to weigh in empirically, 45 people made it clear: they want the siting of the plant, should it come to that, to be driven primarily and overwhelmingly according to strict environmental standards. They want the impact on marine life limited. They’re especially concerned by the high-salinity effluent that will flow out of the plant, and dump into the ocean at a serious cost to the surrounding ecology. They want the energy use at the facility, which will be colossal, to have a limited carbon footprint (though a consultant dismissed a participant’s suggestion that wind turbines could do exactly that, as 48 such turbines do some 20 miles from a desalination plant in Perth, Australia). And they want the physical impact of the plant to not interfere with wildlife, wetlands, water quality and vegetation.
Participants were given color-coded stickers to paste on about 10 boards, each representing a set of criteria ranging from “community values” (that is, the location of the facility, job creation, impacts to recreation) to risks (financial or environmental), costs, and reliability of the plant itself. About 75 to 90 people were in the audience at Marineland’s Whitney Lab auditorium, though judging by the number of stickers that made it on the boards, only 45 people took part in that exercise after the presentation and the Q&A. Environmental stewardship got about 140 stickers. The next-closest criteria, project reliability, got 32, with particular concern about the plant’s ability to withstand natural disasters such as hurricanes.
A list of 30-some potential locations will be made available by March 25, the consultants say. (That date subsequently changed to late June.) The list will be reduced to four or five by year’s end. The sites must be of at least 10 acres each. (At least that’s the figure the project is posting on its website. At the meeting, one of the consultants said the site would need at least 25 acres.) Those sites will be “relatively” close to the ocean. There will be no consideration for brackish-water desalination, which is much less expensive. The plant would have an ultimate capacity of 20 to 25 million gallons per day, roughly the size of the desalination plant in Tampa Bay (a much-troubled plant since its day of inception, and through its few operating years). It would begin at 10 to 15 million gallons per day. The Intracoastal waterway will not be the source of the water.
No dollar figures were spoken about the overall cost of the project, but project documents put the range of the 10 to 15 million gallon per day plant cost at $180 million to $234 million. That does not include the cost of pipelining the water to other suppliers or users, nor the cost of energy, nor the plant’s environmental costs on its surroundings. The costs are likely to be much higher.
So far, Palm Coast is shouldering the majority of those costs. Initially, five counties and eight municipalities, including Flagler Beach, Bunnell, Flagler County, Volusia and St. Johns were all part of the consortium, sharing costs. They all dropped out except for Palm Coast and Leesburg, with two other local governments keeping a place at the table, but without decision-making authority. That’s left Palm Coast holding the bag, The city is budgeting $1.25 million to the project this year and $1 million each of the next three years, rising to $2 million after that. Those figures are low, should the project proceed further. The St. Johns River Water Management District is contributing a third of the overall project cost, in addition to Palm Coast’s share. The money, so far, is paying for the consultants’ work.
It is essentially a Palm Coast project: the city is eying it as a means of generating profits in the future, especially as other cities tap into Palm Coast’s water source. It is highly unlikely that the plant, if built, would be located on land not owned by Palm Coast–or that the plant would not be controlled by the city. Barring that control, it would not make sense for Palm Coast to continue investing in the venture.
A similar open house and public meeting was held in September 2009 (a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the March meeting was the first broad-based meeting that sought public input), when the project was expected to start operations by 2017. Back then a ship-based desalination plant was one of the options in consideration. That’s no longer an option.
Three of Beverly Beach’s city commissioners and mayor were in attendance at the March 10 meeting. They were not swayed by the presentation. Steve Emmett, Beverly Beach’s mayor, had one question: “Where’s the politicals?” He was referring to the numerous government representatives who’d bought into the project at its inception then dropped out. Speaking for himself, Emmett said, his sense of Barrier Island residents is that “they’re not for this.” The costs will be too prohibitive—beginning with Beverly Beach residents, who now and in the future will be buying their water from Palm Coast. Desalinated water is projected to cost from $5.35 to $6.10 per thousand gallons, double the cost of the Tampa Bay plant. Future expansion of the plant would lower that cost, according to consultants, to $4.25 per 1,000 gallon.
The rate in Palm Coast is $3.65 per 1,000 gallons in homes that use up to 5,000 gallons per month. The rate goes up to $4.01 for the next 5,000-gallon increment. Customers outside of Palm Coast’s cioty limits pay a 25 percent surcharge.
After their presentation Wednesday, the consultants held an hour-long Q&A. It was more Q’s than A’s. How many jobs might the plant bring? Don’t know. Will the plant generate tax revenue, or will it be government-run, denying that additional revenue to local governments? Don’t know. How far out to sea will the plant’s salty discharge go? “It could be half a mile, it could be two miles.” How much will the pipelining of the effluent or the distribution cost? Don’t know. Where may some of the potential locations of the plant be? Don’t know. Wait for March 25. Given the size of the land needed for the plant and its pledge not to harm recreation and quality of life, one resident asked, is it safe to assume that the location will have to tunnel its intake and discharge pipes under the Barrier Island and the Intracoastal? Don’t know.