Miami-Dade County is investigating whether water from Florida Power & Light’s industrial cooling canals at Turkey Point have seeped into Biscayne Bay.
Higher levels of ammonia and salinity began appearing at Turtle Point, just south of the plant, in November after the utility began adding millions of gallons of water from a nearby waterway to freshen the canals, according to the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management. The 168-mile-long network of canals, which act like a radiator for the plant’s two nuclear reactors, have grown increasingly hotter since the company overhauled the reactors three years ago to produce more power.
Based on the findings, DERM and FPL have expanded water sampling to “better understand what may be occurring,” said DERM assistant director Lee Hefty. “We do not have all of the lab results back yet, so we will be continuing to evaluate this as analytical results become available.”
Problems in the canals worsened over the summer of 2014 as temperatures soared and an algae bloom — which first appeared when the company briefly shut down the canals during the reactor expansions — nearly forced the utility to twice power down the two reactors.
In a series of moves to address the problem, the utility asked for an emergency request from the South Florida Water Management District to pump freshwater from the nearby L-31 into the canals, in addition to more water from the Floridan aquifer. They also asked nuclear regulators to increase operating temperatures to 104 degrees, the highest for a nuclear power plant in the country.
The steps prompted legal challenges from environmental groups, nearby rock miners and local governments, concerned that the hot canals and huge water draws would put too much stress on a region grappling with increased demands on its over-taxed water supply.
As part of a deal to fix the problems, county officials demanded that the utility expand water-monitoring that included the site near Turtle Point. In September, levels of ammonia began climbing. By November, the levels were about 10 times as high.
Tropical Audubon, which has complained repeatedly that Biscayne Bay desperately needs freshwater to deal with its own fight against increasing salinity caused by decades of flood-control measures, lost a legal bid last month to stop water withdrawals but recently came across the findings on its ongoing discovery process. The group now says the findings prove their point.
All it will do is flush out the pollution for everyone else to deal with, which is actually what has happened.
Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds
“They’ve pushed it to the surface, which is what we said would happen in our lawsuit,” said executive director Laura Reynolds. “All it will do is flush out the pollution for everyone else to deal with, which is actually what has happened.”
Reynolds said the group will likely appeal last month’s ruling and is looking into whether the utility violated the Clean Water Act by polluting water in a national park.
“The biggest [concern] is what is this doing to wildlife, to crocodiles. They’ve all left the area, and now you’re seeing them showing up in Key Biscayne eating people’s dogs,” she said. “That’s just one example. We don’t know what kind of affect this is having on anything else.”
But FPL officials say that more sampling needs to be done because ammonia detected at Turtle Point is higher than in the cooling canals.
If the canals were ultimately the source, you would think the canals would have a higher concentration.
FPL environmental services director Matt Raffenberg
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Matt Raffenberg, FPL’s environmental services director. “If the canals were ultimately the source, you would think the canals would have a higher concentration because the canals are flowing out. That’s not the case.”
Monitoring dating back to 2010 — which includes five sites to the south, east and north of the plant — also shows no damage to the bay, Raffenberg said.
“This is the first time we’re seeing this. We’ve collected data not just on water quality, but reams of ecological data,” he said. “Those data do not indicate the cooling canals have impacted Biscayne Bay. You can’t throw out five years of data.”
But environmentalists say that’s because the canals operating at new, higher temperatures may present new problems. At a hearing in Homestead this week, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy argued that regulators had failed to thoroughly investigate potential damage to the environment and wildlife, including crocs, who use the canals as one of their chief nesting grounds. In the last year, the number of of nesting crocs dropped from 22 a year ago to nine this year. The number of baby crocs fell from 400 to 100, according to University of Florida researchers.
At the hearing held in Homestead on Monday and Tuesday, hearing officers did not allow the public to speak but will accept comments through Jan. 15. They can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biscayne National Park officials, who have also raised concerns about impacts to the bay, say they are aware of the findings and are keeping a close watch.
“We’re going to do analysis, and once we review our analysis and really figure things out and talk about it, then we’ll figure out our next steps. But we’re not at that point yet,” said interim Superintendent Sula Jacobs.
County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava has asked county staff members to present its findings to the commission in February.
“The drawing down of water has potential consequences throughout the ecosystem, and it’s just a great concern,” she said. “It is a very difficult situation for us because the county is very dependent right now on energy from Turkey Point, and for that to function, the cooling canals have to function. So we have to find the best way forward.”