With a steamy summer around the corner, Florida Power & Light is once again wrestling with its troubled cooling canals at Turkey Point.
The utility obtained an emergency permit Tuesday from the South Florida Water Management District to pump more water into the 5,900-acre loop used to cool the plant’s two nuclear reactors. But Miami-Dade County Commissioners added a strict caveat: they agreed to provide a permit to pump the water across sensitive wetlands only for a year and only if the utility comes up with a long-term fix.
“You're a good corporate citizen but we need to get this one right,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss. “At the end of the day, our responsibility is to protect the environment and the people who have to use that water."
The canals first began running hot last summer after the utility completed work to increase power coming from the plant on southern Biscayne Bay. The hotter and increasingly saltier canals triggered persistent algae blooms, threatened to shut down the reactors and forced the utility to scramble to find ways to better control the system.
But finding a solution has proved tricky and set off debates over South Florida’s fragile water supply, with the county, the city of Miami, Biscayne National Park, environmentalists and even rock miners raising objections.
In addition to raising the risk of power outages, the canals have pushed an underground saltwater plume closer to drinking water supplies.
Last summer, after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to allow operating temperatures to rise to 104 degrees, the hottest in the nation, FPL began looking for water to cool and freshen the canals. The company won temporary permission to pull water from the nearby L-31 canal — between August and October, the utility pumped 1,135 million gallons or about four times what all of Miami-Dade County uses in a day. The utility hoped to find a more permanent solution by drilling six new wells to pump up to 14 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan aquifer, a source deep beneath the shallow Biscayne Aquifer that supplies most of the county’s drinking water.
But local government officials and environmental groups have fought FPL’s plans, filing appeals and arguing that diverting water to the plant could derail Everglades restoration efforts intended to revive Biscayne Bay, where increasing salinity threatens marine life. County staff also said adding freshwater could also worsen the movement of underground saltwater.
“I don’t know that they have a lot of options quite frankly to gain control of the cooling canal at this point,” said Lee Hefty, director of the county’s division of environmental resources. “Unfortunately, it’s not one silver bullet.”
But FPL says it is working to find a solution and contends that objections have only stalled work.
“The issue here is about time,” said Steven Scroggs, FPL senior director for development. “We know the Floridan aquifer can be drilled, but it’s being held up.”
Scroggs also said summer 2015 could be even more challenging because a power plant at Port Everglades is undergoing renovations and unavailable to help generate power locally. Of the power used by South Florida, 50 percent comes over transmission lines and 50 percent is generated locally, he said.
Pulling water from the L-31, he explained, is intended to keep the canals working only until six wells can be drilled to pump water from the Floridan for long-term relief. FPL is also now talking with the county about piping reclaimed water from the county’s southern sewer treatment plant — water it also intends to use to cool two new reactors now being considered by the NRC. However, that water must be cleaned first and Scroggs said the utility has not yet determined the standards for its use.
Commissioners, clearly frustrated that another year passed without a solution, gave FPL six months to come up with a comprehensive fix or risk losing the permit for the pipes.
“It is really interesting that we keep going round and round,” said Commissioner Javier Souto. “It’s the blind leading the blind.”
Staff writer Doug Hanks contributed to this report.