Forty years ago when Florida Power & Light carved a 5,100-acre network of canals from wetlands to cool its sprawling Turkey Point power plant perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay, the radiator-shaped loop seemed like a reasonable alternative to dumping plant water into the pristine bay.
But increasingly, that decision has come to vex the utility and state regulators charged with managing it.
Last summer, water temperatures routinely climbed over 100 degrees. A festering algae bloom worsened, trapping heat and making it harder for the canals to do their job. And after an expansion of the power plant two years ago, salinity in the canals began creeping up, helping feed a growing underground saltwater plume that threatens nearby drinking water supplies.
Now, a new operating permit in the works for more than a year is raising alarms after the state Department of Environmental Protection signed off on it two days before Christmas and removed state water managers from the license, giving DEP sole authority and catching local government officials off guard.
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“We definitely have concerns,” said Biscayne National Park Superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who said plans to use water from a nearby waterway to freshen the cooling canals could threaten decades of Everglades restoration work.
At issue is the battle over freshwater. Two years ago, FPL conceded that water from the cooling canals, saltier and heavier than adjacent water, had helped push a saltwater plume inland. But the utility believes it can control the spread by putting fresher water into a surrounding canal, dug in the 1970s to help prevent the saltwater intrusion now occurring.
While the spread of the plume has been monitored, environmentalists complain too little has been done to investigate exactly how the canals contribute to the plume or what should be done to stop it.
“It’s almost as if the utility wrote [the permit] for themselves and it allows them to do business as usual,” said Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds.
Last week, a three-judge panel from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a hearing in Homestead after the Miami-based Citizens for Allied Safe Energy argued that the expansion has caused the problems.
“The canals can’t support the reactors at this level” of power production, said Barry White, a CASE organizer who appeared before the panel, which has until March to rule. “You’re either going to face the problems now and tell FPL to cut back those reactors and find out the problems in the canal. Or if they don’t do that, they’re going to shut down on their own.”
Critics, including Miami-Dade County, also fear the changes loosen rather than tighten controls on a system in distress and cuts the public out of the equation: in the permit order, DEP called the South Florida Water Management District’s oversight “redundant.”
“They essentially took away authority without asking,” said Julie Dick, an attorney for the Everglades Law Center. “We moved from an agency that has a governing board and a public process to an agency that does things behind closed doors.”
But state officials said in a statement late Friday that the decision to remove the water management district from the license was the result of working “collaboratively” over four months with the district, FPL and environmental groups to draft the new order.
The order will also set in place new measures intended to reduce damage from the salty cooling canals by freshening them with water from the aquifer or nearby canals, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote. FPL has until March to say exactly what those measures are.
FPL says the measures will cover both short-term remedies for the canals and ongoing environmental concerns. And spokeswoman Bianca Cruz called CASE “an anti-nuclear group of people that attempts to use the process to grab inflammatory headlines and raise money.”
The water management district did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Both the City of Miami and the county have asked the state for more time to look at the order. Tropical Audubon has also asked for time to argue for a hearing.
The county, which received the plan Christmas Eve, is “feverishly evaluating” the plan, said Lee Hefty, director of the Division of Environmental Resources Management.
Hefty said the county is chiefly concerned about the threat to drinking water supplies and ensuring the utility starts correcting damage already done.
“At this point, the most important issue we’re focusing on now is their proposed action to change the salinity in the cooling canals and make sure it isn’t going to exacerbate water quality,” he said. “We want to make sure there is adequate monitoring going forward.”
County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa has asked for an independent study of the cooling canals and said this week she expects to present fellow commissioners with a formal resolution next month.
Carlstrom believes removing the water management district, which is overseeing the state’s Everglades restoration projects, from the license will weaken the state’s ability to locally guide work.
FPL, which in the past has fought monitoring efforts and until two years ago denied its cooling canals were contributing to the growing plume, says it plans on making a three-step fix. First, clean up sediment in the canals. Second, draw less salty water from canals or the Floridan aquifer to reduce salinity and get levels comparable to nearby bay water. Finally, the utility plans to use newer, more efficient equipment to cool the water.
But critics say those quick fixes do nothing to address potential damage done by 40 years of industrial wastewater or to determine what effect the canals may be having on groundwater that flows easily through porous limestone.
“The public should have the opportunity to be involved in making comments on that management plan, to make it some kind of public process,” said Caroline McLaughlin, a program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association, which was surprised by the state’s quick action.
Turkey Point sits on 11,000 acres about 25 miles south of Miami. FPL began building the canals in 1970 after environmentalists sued to stop the utility from dumping cooling water in Biscayne Bay. The utility promised to keep salinity in the canals just above levels in the nearby bay. An 18-foot-deep “interceptor” ditch was also dug to block any saltwater moving west and threatening the drinking water supplies and the Everglades.
But over the years, saltwater started migrating inland. In 2009, regulators demanded FPL address the spreading plume and, after yearlong objections from the utility, hammered out a deal in which FPL agreed to spend millions of dollars to study the plume and undergo monitoring by the county and water management district. In 2012, the study concluded that many factors — sea level rise, storm surges, mining, groundwater withdrawals — and not just the cooling canals contributed to the plume.
In recent years, evidence mounted that water from the cooling canals might be the problem. During planning to increase power production, FPL discovered that the interceptor ditch had failed to stop the deep migration of saltwater. County surveys show salt levels steadily creeping up.
In August 2014, after expanding the plant, the utility found salinity in the canals had climbed to about three times the level of nearby sea water. When an algae bloom worsened over the summer, FPL filed emergency requests for additional water from the Florida aquifer and nearby canals of up to 100 million gallons a day. FPL also treated the algae with copper sulfate. Salinity dropped in October, but rose again in December.
More water seems to be the solution. But in a region struggling to increase freshwater to revive the bay and nearby Everglades, critics worry that the solution, and planned addition of two more nuclear units that would use two deep wells to draw water from the aquifer as a back-up, could be the start of more problems.
Miami-Dade county, for one, urged the state to “require FPL to address the root problem,” rather than simply dilute the salt, according to a November letter from county environmental staff.
“What we would like to see is real abatement,” said the Everglades Law Center’s Dick. “Industrial wastewater has been in that 6,000-acre cooling system for 40 years, so there’s 40 years of industrial wastewater going out to the groundwater that could really destroy the wellfield and water supply for the Florida Keys.”