The plan to divert county wastewater to Florida Power and Light’s cooling canals in South Dade cleared a key committee on Thursday and is on track for passage over the objections of environmental groups.
A unanimous vote by a panel of Miami-Dade commissioners to endorse the proposal clears the way for final approval before the full 13-member board next month.
The county and the for-profit utility would share costs of a new treatment plant to clean sewage that would otherwise flow into the ocean under an outdated system the state is requiring Miami-Dade to end by 2025.
With millions of gallons of treated wastewater that need to go somewhere else, Mayor Carlos Gimenez struck a deal with FPL to use the water to freshen the canals that help cool nuclear reactors at the company’s Turkey Point power plant.
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Gimenez argued the plan will let the canals — a source of Biscayne Bay pollution and a top target of environmentalists — return to a healthy ecosystem, while giving FPL a more sustainable source of water other than freshwater needed to help revive the Everglades and recharge the county’s aquifer. For Miami-Dade, the deal helps solve a looming challenge: how to comply with the state’s “ocean outfall” rules without pricey and risky alternatives that involve injecting the treated sewage deep underground.
“These are heady goals,” Gimenez told the Chairman’s Policy Council, the most powerful commission committee because it’s populated by Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo and six other members that make up a majority of the full 13-member board. “We have the opportunity to achieve them.”
But the environmental groups that helped stall the plan’s approval at the council’s February meeting see the effort as giving FPL a pass for ongoing pollution problems while leaving too many details about water quality up in the air. Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, an ally of environmental groups, used Thursday’s meeting to add testing requirements to the proposal to beef up monitoring of the treated wastewater that would be pouring into the canals and to try to ensure it doesn’t seep into Biscayne Bay just yards away from the manmade ditches.
“FPL is a business,” Sosa said. “We need to respond to the public. [FPL] needs to prove to us the waters are becoming more healthy, that we are eliminating the problem.”
Environmentalists have also raised concerns over the long-term use of the canals and the failure to clean up a massive saltwater plume that has migrated underground more than three miles inland, threatening drinking water supplies for the Florida Keys.
Last week, the board of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority directed its staff to push more aggressively to have the canals retired. Kent Nelson, deputy director of the authority, attended the Miami-Dade meeting and urged commissioners not to let the utility use the new agreement to evade responsibility for a $200 million cleanup of an underground saltwater plume linked to FPL’s overheated cooling canals.
“The concern we have here is there is an existing hyper-saline toxic plume in the Biscayne Aquifer,” he said, “which is the main source of drinking water for Monroe County.”
County and FPL executives said the new deal won’t deter efforts to fix the plume and prevent future ones. Steven Scroggs, an FPL senior director, said ready access to the treated wastewater will make it easier for the company to refresh the canals during harsh conditions.
“This reclaimed water will allow us to be drought proof,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.