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County worried about serving big power plant across Okeechobee line


Indian River County fears it will be stuck with the role of emergency-responder for Florida Power & Light’s proposed $1.2 billion Okeechobee power plant, with none of the property tax income and all of the extra costs and impacts dumped on Indian River County taxpayers.

It claims Okeechobee County, where the huge plant is slated to be built just across the Indian River County line, isn’t ready to be the designated first-responder. Both Okeechobee and FPL dispute this claim. A looming deadline has brought the disagreement to a head after two years of comment and review. 

The permitting process is overseen by the State of Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, which gathers information from affected agencies, with final “agency reports” due this week. The assigned judge will decide what, if anything, FPL is required to do to mitigate or guard against ill effects the Okeechobee Clean Energy Center might bring to the area before issuing the go-ahead.

“It’s been two years and still Okeechobee has no (emergency response) plan,” Indian River County Commissioner Tim Zorc said. “Once the permit is issued by the judge, it’s over.”

Differences among the three entities were aired in recent county commission meetings. Indian River County discussed the matter first on March 22. Okeechobee’s commission added an agenda item for its March 24 meeting at the last minute, perhaps to assure the public it’s not slacking off on the issue.

Zorc and fellow County Commissioner Bob Solari said the two counties have “different standards” for emergency response requirements to the proposed 1,600-megawatt plant that will be located 24 miles west of Vero Beach.

Indian River County is relying on the National Fire Protection Association standards, which are higher than the standard used by Okeechobee.

Zorc says “three fire engines, a battalion chief and a medic unit,” which is 15 people, should be ready to respond to a power plant fire or other emergency. Okeechobee County’s entire emergency response fleet and staff can’t meet that standard, he added.

Okeechobee Fire Chief Ralph Franklin disagrees.  He said all that is required is “two in, two out,” that is, “when two people enter a building, you have to have two outside, in case they have to go in and rescue them.”

Response time is also an issue. The legal requirement is that first responders be located within 30 minutes, but Okeechobee’s nearest fire station is about 30 miles away, according to Zorc, making it doubtful responders can meet the standard. IRC’s nearest station is only 18 miles away.  

The two counties have a mutual-aid agreement that is supposed to have Indian River County arrive second and in a supporting role, Zorc said, but both counties are regularly called out at the same time and “traditionally we would get there earlier,” recent history shows.

Okeechobee County also does not have a hazmat team and Indian River does, Zorc said. While the plant will be powered by steam and natural-gas combustion turbines, 8 million gallons of combustible oil also will be stored onsite as an alternate fuel in case of interruption in the natural gas supply, according to county officials.

Okeechobee has been so slow preparing to meet emergencies at the new plant, Zorc said, there is no way they can be ready in time. The plant’s construction period is the most vulnerable time and will take about two years. By FPL’s own estimate, six emergencies a year will occur during construction, with 650 employees on site. During regular operations, three emergencies will occur a year. “So it’s not a question of if, but when,” Zorc said. 

Construction will start in six to nine months, Zorc said, and it takes a year to order and receive a new fire truck and as long to build a new fire station.

Although Indian River County is not the official first responder, the County Commission believes Indian River will end up fulfilling that role on a regular basis, with no compensation for training and other costs, while Okeechobee is set to receive about $18 million a year in property taxes from FPL, according to county staff estimates.

The Commission directed county staff to include in its the agency report, filed this week, a request that FPL be ordered to pay to have Indian River firefighters and EMTs trained for power plant emergency response, which would probably run over $200,000 since it would require overtime.

The administrative judge has the power to approve the plant based on the agency reports alone. To get a fuller airing of the issues, Indian River County has requested that the judge schedule a hearing on the matter before rendering a decision.

Indian River will also extend an invitation to FPL to “voluntarily annex” the power plant property into Indian River County, which has closer emergency-response proximity and capability in place.

FPL Project Development Manager Jacquelyn Kingston rejected Indian River County’s points.

She said Indian River could take advantage of the “free training” the company will be offering – without travel, food or worktime compensated – and dismissed the notion Okeechobee is not ready. “They have adequate existing capability” and have plans to beef up their services, she said.

FPL senior attorney Michael Tammaro told the Indian River County Commission, “Your authority to impose conditions will be rejected by the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection),” but agreed the county could petition for a hearing.

At last week’s Okeechobee County Commission meeting, Indian River County’s assessment of Okeechobee’s emergency response capability and the supposed tax windfall also were challenged.

Fire Chief Ralph Franklin said the distance to the fire station is 23 miles, not 30, and claimed his crew can get there in less than 30 minutes, meeting the legal standard.

The notion that 15 people need to show up “is Indian River County’s opinion,” he said, and the resources actually needed are still being established in ongoing conversations between the Okeechobee County and FPL.

Okeechobee County Administrator Robbie Chartier also disputed Indian River’s property tax estimate.

He said Okeechobee’s “windfall” will be a mere $2.6 million the first year, not Indian River’s estimated $18 million.

The Okeechobee Clean Energy Center is to be located at 3193 N.E. 366 Trail in Okeechobee County. 
FPL is seeking site certification under the “Florida Electrical Power Plant Siting Act” for the 2,942-acre property, which is projected to generate 1,600 megawatts in 2019 – enough to power 1.6 million homes a year.