Environment

Florida Power & Light spars with national park over water needs for nuclear plant

Salt foam floats on Turkey Point cooling canals in November 2011. Over the summer, the increasingly salty canals topped 102 degrees, forcing the utility to ask federal regulators to increase operating temperature limits from 100 to 104 degrees to avoid having to shut down the plant’s two nuclear reactors. The utility now wants permission to pump up to 100 million gallons of water daily from a nearby drainage canal to freshen and cool the canals.
Salt foam floats on Turkey Point cooling canals in November 2011. Over the summer, the increasingly salty canals topped 102 degrees, forcing the utility to ask federal regulators to increase operating temperature limits from 100 to 104 degrees to avoid having to shut down the plant’s two nuclear reactors. The utility now wants permission to pump up to 100 million gallons of water daily from a nearby drainage canal to freshen and cool the canals. Miami Herald Staff

To keep its nuclear power plant at Turkey Point cool, Florida Power & Light wants to make a temporary fix orchestrated over the hot summer into a more permanent solution.

But the request — to pump up to 100 million gallons of freshwater daily into plant cooling canals from a nearby drainage canal over the next 20 years — would rob Biscayne Bay of freshwater needed to revive ailing coral reefs and seagrass meadows and undo millions of dollars spent in Everglades restoration, federal officials said at a South Florida Water Management District meeting Wednesday.

The latest complaints come amid growing controversy over how the aging canals are managed. Earlier this month, Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami asked the state Department of Environmental Regulation, which regulates power plants, to hold hearings on a new state management plan that they say does nothing to fix ongoing water problems.

“This is a stopgap measure to try to supplement a problem that is much bigger,” said Biscayne National Park Superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who called the cooling canals “a nice way to say an industrial wastewater facility adjacent to a national park.”

Diverting water for the utility is also “incongruous” and “not in the public’s interest,” said U.S. Department of Interior restoration policy analyst Joan Lawrence.

But FPL officials say they are simply following orders in the new management plan and chose to keep using the drainage canal because summer efforts were so successful.

“We understand that others, including the park service and other environmental groups, would like to see all the water … go to Biscayne Bay. However, that’s not the current status of the law,” said Steve Scroggs, FPL senior director.

Problems in the canals surfaced over the summer when water temperatures reached 102 degrees, prompting the utility to make an emergency request to up operating temperatures from 100 to 104 degrees. A vexing algae bloom also worsened, trapping even more heat.

FPL, which had already started pumping up to 14 million gallons of water from the Floridan aquifer daily to reduce salinity in the hot canals, tried to cool them by powering down the nuclear units to 75 percent operating capacity, according to water management district records. But temperatures remained high.

So in August, the utility made an emergency request to draw water from the L-31E, part of a canal system that provides the largest supply of freshwater to Biscayne Bay.

The water management district signed off on the request, but only until October and only if there was surplus water. Under Everglades restoration work, water managers must reserve a certain amount of water in the canals during the dry season to keep the bay quenched over the winter months.

In January, faced with the new state management plan signed two days before Christmas, FPL applied for a 20-year permit.

Of all the options considered, Scroggs said pumping water from the L-31E fixed the cooling canals “in the most rapid manner possible.” He also said 20 years was an option provided by the permit, not because FPL intended to use water for two decades. FPL models show the canals could be freshened in just two to three years, he said.

Concern over damaging Biscayne Bay has dogged Turkey Point since the 1970s when the United States government sued to keep the utility from dumping billions of gallons of hot water into the bay. The cooling canals were supposed to solve the problem by circulating plant water through a 168-mile long radiator-like loop. But over the years an underground saltwater plume spreading beneath the saltier, heavier canal water moved inland, threatening drinking wells.

Critics also say the canals started getting hotter and saltier after a 2013 expansion that increased plant production by 15 percent.

“FPL was never required to [expand] and never required to increase the heat load,” said South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard. “They did so to increase profit.”

But Scroggs said by shutting down an older oil and natural gas-fired unit at the plant, FPL in fact reduced the heat. He said he expects the district to reduce the duration of the permit, which Sharon Trost, the district’s division director for regulation, also suggested at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Duration and volume are always negotiable components in any application,” she said. “We don’t just willy-nilly sign off on permits.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that environmentalists sued FPL in the 1970s to prevent the utility from dumping hot water from its Turkey Point plant into Biscayne Bay.

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