Tampa electric's dirty deal

click to enlarge WARM AND FUZZY POWER: Families watch manatees that winter next to Tampa Electric's coal-burning Big Bend Plant. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
WARM AND FUZZY POWER: Families watch manatees that winter next to Tampa Electric's coal-burning Big Bend Plant.

It's time to tilt at windmills again. Except this time, the windmills are powered by coal.

Civic activists, health advocates and three Tampa City Council members are trying to block a long-term deal with Tampa Electric Company. They say it doesn't require the utility to clean up its coal-burning plants, won't lead to power lines underground and doesn't force Tampa Electric to move toward greener, alternative energy sources.

"I really believe if we work together, in good faith, for six months, we can come up with a better deal for our community," said Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, who is leading efforts to delay passage of the Tampa Electric contract.

Here's the issue: Tampa Electric has negotiated a 25-year agreement with Tampa to continue to be the city's main power provider. In return for the right to use the publicly owned rights-of-way, Tampa Electric will continue to pay more than $20 million to city government, a substantial budget line item in these days of Amendment 1-fueled budget cutbacks.

The power company's shareholders make good returns on their investments. The people get fairly cheap electricity. The city gets more revenues. A win-win-win, right?

Not really.

"The problem is this: TECO uses coal to power its Big Bend Power Station (100-percent coal-fired) and its H.L. Culbreath Bayside Power Station (60 percent coal and 40 percent natural gas)," wrote two Tampa Bay members of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Lynn Ringenberg and Don Mellman, in an op-ed piece they are circulating. "From inhaling the particulate matter produced at these two stations, Tampa Bay citizens are exposed to a wide range of adverse health conditions, including asthma, lung tissue damage, stroke, heart attack and premature death. A 2000 study by Abt Associates estimated that particulate matter from coal plants is responsible for nearly 24,000 deaths each year in the U.S. While coal is touted to be a cheap source of power, it becomes the most expensive when the adverse health effects are factored in."

The proposed franchise agreement is silent on the issue of coal.

It also says nothing about requiring Tampa Electric to pay some of the cost of undergrounding power lines if neighborhoods choose to do so, a pet issue of Saul-Sena's for years now. Helping neighborhoods opt for undergrounding would start to get rid of those extremely ugly (and prone to being knocked down in hurricanes) power lines to carry electricity to my home and many of yours. She says studies show that utilities save 30 percent on their operating costs for underground lines, so perhaps the utility could agree to pick up that portion of the capital costs of putting the lines below the surface.

The agreement could also use stronger incentives and direction for going green, the city councilwoman added. Tampa Electric now gives incentives or rebates for smaller, energy-saving devices, but not for larger-scale home improvements, such as solar panels.

Other civic activists, such as the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County, would like to see a provision that would allow the public to purchase the utility and operate it themselves.

"[We are] especially concerned that the City of Tampa and its future administrations will be bound by the terms of this agreement for 25 years with no provision for a City buy-out, full or partial, if needed or desired during the term of the agreement," wrote Linda G. D'Aquila, president of the League. "The agreement does not adequately address energy independence, energy conservation, renewable energy, new energy/transmission opportunities and evolving technologies, performance and compliance, or accountability."

Having just come off $4-a-gallon gasoline prices and with renewed calls for both energy independence and alternative fuels, there would seem to be lots of public interest in renegotiating the future of Tampa's energy production. But, strangely, there isn't. Sure, the issue is technical and dull. But initially, four City Council members voted against the Tampa Electric deal, wanting to hold out for exactly the kinds of things that the activists are seeking.

Then, a week after that rejection, one council member, Joseph Caetano, switched his vote, leading to a 4-3 approval. A final vote is set for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday (Dec. 4) in the Tampa City Council chambers at 301 E. Kennedy Blvd. It is a public hearing, so you can go and let your opinion be known. (The other pro-Tampa Electric votes on the council are Gwen Miller, Thomas Scott and Charlie Miranda, in case you want to e-mail them.) Saul-Sena would like to see, at a minimum, the agreement cut to 10 years in duration and stronger guidelines to protect the trees that Tampa Electric cuts near its power lines.

And where is Tampa's mayor on this?

Pam Iorio has suggested a green task force be formed, but only after the agreement is approved. Her city attorney, Chip Fletcher, said all of the activists' ideas may be great ones, but the law is not on their side. The franchise agreement covers only the use of rights-of-way; mandating certain fuels or undergrounding power lines or pushing conservation measures is the domain of the state Public Service Commission (PSC), not the city. The law doesn't allow cities to enforce those kinds of provisions on utilities.

Tampa Electric concurs with Fletcher's assessment, calling the agreement (which took three years to negotiate) a fair one. Company spokesman Rick Morera says the utility is already moving to a cleaner, greener mode, in the middle of a $1 billion improvement program to cut emissions and install better technology to take pollutants out of the air. Using coal is inexpensive and furthers energy independence, Morera added.

But Saul-Sena and others say Tampa Electric could be a better corporate citizen by reopening the talks and agreeing to make greater gains, even if the requirements are the province of the PSC.

Tampa's power contract is a lesson for everyone in the Bay area and Florida. The law is not on our side. But public opinion can be. Tampa Electric's Big Bend plant alone spews 11,601 tons of sulphur dioxide, 29,644 tons of nitrogen oxides, 10 million tons of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and 238 pounds of deadly mercury into the air over Tampa Bay, according to 2002 emissions stats cited by the national Clean Air Task Force.

If that doesn't concern you, no matter which side of the Bay you live on, then you must not be breathing the same air I am.

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