At a rare state Senate field hearing, Florida Power & Light defended its operation of the troubled cooling canal system at Turkey Point and its plans to contain the spread of an underground salt water plume.
For the first time, the utility also put a price tag on its ongoing clean-up efforts at the nuclear power plant on southern Biscayne Bay — an estimated $50 million this year alone.
FPL’s vice president of governmental affairs, Mike Sole, told a standing-room-only crowd at the Friday afternoon meeting in Homestead that the bill for that work would likely be passed along to customers.
The hearing, requested by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who is facing a tough race for the district that includes the sprawling plant, came amid increased scrutiny of the canals after a series of lawsuits and studies showing the super salty canals have leaked both east into Biscayne Bay and west toward underground drinking water supplies.
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The utility has also been criticized for ignoring its own reports and acting too slowly to control the worsening plume.
In recent years, the salt front has advanced at about 600 feet per year in the region, Lee Hefty, chief of Miami-Dade County’s division of Environmental Resources Management told lawmakers.
Sole spent more than an hour defending the utility and laying out a plan for cleaning up the plume. Measures include adding up to 14 million gallons a day of brackish water from the Floridan aquifer and digging extraction wells that would pump salty canal water below the Biscayne aquifer, which supplies drinking water to the region. To clean up the bay, Sole said the utility plans on filling some canals and is still considering other actions.
“We want to do this quickly, but more importantly we want to do this right,” said Sole, who was secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2008 when the state ordered expanded monitoring after realizing there might be problems. “This needs to be done very scientifically based and very thoughtfully so we do not cause harm.”
But those fixes may not go far enough, critics said. About 150 people attended the hearing and several dozen members of the public signed up to speak.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who asked for the county report that revealed the radioactive tracer tritium in the bay, said the canals were “poorly conceived” when they were created in the 1970s, should be abandoned for more modern technology. Cava pointed out that canal conditions worsened after nuclear reactors were uprated to increase power output. While tritium has been detected at levels well below health standards, its presence indicates the canals also are likely leaking water tainted by high levels of ammonia and other contaminants into the bay.
The uprating project was only supposed to increase water temperatures by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit but canal temperatures following the expansion spiked, forcing the reactors to twice power down as they approached operating limits.
University of Miami hydrologist David Chin, in a report to the county, concluded the increased power caused the problems. But FPL blamed a regional drought, along with algae and sediment collecting in the canals after they were briefly shut down during the expansion.
The plant needs to be modernized...The technology is not revolutionary. It’s already been adopted.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava
“The plant needs to be modernized,” Cava told lawmakers, pointing to more modern reactors which rely on cooling towers. “The technology is not revolutionary. It’s already been adopted. It’s not even cutting-edge technology.”
Cava also took state environmental regulators to task for not acting faster.
Despite concerns in 2008, DEP did not issue a new plan to manage the canals until 2014. The plan was quickly challenged by the county, as well nearby rock miner Steve Torcise, whose operations are threatened by the front, and Tropical Audubon.
“The county environmental professionals and staff at the water management district have raised the red flag repeatedly,” Cava said. “And yet in response the state removed the water management district from the oversight.”
But when asked by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, if the state had ignored an administrative law judge in February, DEP deputy secretary Paula Cobb complained that the judge overstepped his authority.
"The department did not sidestep the findings of the administrative law judge," she said. "The administrative law judge tried to dictate the exact actions…and honestly I need every tool I can get."
The utility should also pay for the water they use and waste they create, said Laura Reynolds, former executive director of Tropical Audubon and now a consultant for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“This is a salt factory that continues to generate salt,” she said. “Right now they’re not paying for their waste. And they’re not paying for their water.”
The hearing also illustrated FPL’s considerable political influence in Tallahassee. Two of the senators on the panel, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, both have worked as lobbyists for FPL. In addition, Flores's PAC has received $5,900 in contributions from FPL.
Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.