Could putting treated sewage in FPL nuclear canals pollute Biscayne Bay? Critics say yes

Nuclear regulators granted a hearing on whether Florida Power & Light fully considered cooling towers as an alternative to troubled cooling canals in a bid to keep Turkey Point reactors operating another 20 years.
Nuclear regulators granted a hearing on whether Florida Power & Light fully considered cooling towers as an alternative to troubled cooling canals in a bid to keep Turkey Point reactors operating another 20 years. emichot@miamiherald.com

A plan to use costly treated wastewater to fix Florida Power & Light’s nuclear cooling canals could wind up polluting Biscayne Bay, environmentalists warned this week.

Under the deal set to go before the Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday, FPL and the county plan to build a plant to clean sewage in South Dade and pump billions of gallons of treated wastewater into the over-heated canals each year. The canals have become increasingly salty and have leaked underground, creating a massive saltwater plume now creeping into Biscayne Bay and threatening nearby drinking water wellfields.

In March, Mayor Carlos Gimenez pitched the plan as a fix to two vexing problems: the troubled canals and meeting a deadline to end the county’s decades-long practice of pumping polluted sewage offshore.

But environmentalists say so far the plan provides no guarantee that wastewater will be clean enough for Biscayne Bay, which has been plagued by algae blooms and seagrass die-offs. The county may also be missing a rare opportunity to once and for all fix the canals and help the bay. In a letter to commissioners last month, five environmental groups, including Tropical Audubon and the National Parks Conservation Association, warned that the plan also ignores a 20-year-old Everglades restoration plan to use wastewater to revive the bay and coastal wetlands, which stalled over the high price of treatment.

“Let’s not do a half-assed solution,” said Southern Alliance for Clean Energy director Stephen Smith. “That’s what we’re really talking about here.”

FPL canal aerial
The Turkey Point cooling canals cover nearly 6,000 acres and have become too salty over the years, creating a massive underground saltwater plume the utility is now trying to clean up. Emily Michot Copy Photo

Environmentalists also worry that the county, which has reviewed the plan twice in committee meetings with little public comment, is rushing into an agreement with the powerful utility and reneging on an earlier decision to retire the canals.

“Biscayne Bay is at a tipping point,” said Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein. “If we continue putting nutrients into the bay we’ll start to get really long-lasting terrible algae blooms and we’re already starting to see these blooms.”

The deal would also help FPL secure an extension on its two aging reactors by providing a reliable, steady supply of water.

FPL had planned on replacing the reactors, which have been operating for nearly 50 years, with two new reactors. On Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted FPL operating licenses for the units, but their construction remains uncertain. The utility shelved the reactors in 2016 after the builder declared bankruptcy, and last year Florida regulators rejected FPL’s request to charge customers for what it has so far spent to plan and obtain the licenses.

The sprawling cooling canals are the only such system in operation in the U.S. and were meant to keep nuclear-plant water out of Biscayne Bay.

swimming croc
A study by a three-judge panel for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will consider the nesting grounds for crocodiles that appeared after the canals were dug, which helped push the crocs off the endangered species list. Miami Herald file

The canals and plant sit in a part of the county particularly vulnerable to saltwater intrusion because it is cut off from other freshwater supplies and relies almost solely on rainwater, County Environmental Resources Management Division Chief Lee Hefty said Thursday. In January, an inland monitoring well west of the canals tested positive for high levels of salinity for the first time, he said.

Because of the easy flow of water through the region’s porous limestone, a ditch constructed west of the canals was supposed to keep canal water from migrating west.

But over the years, the plume gradually deepened under the canals and spread. Despite mounting evidence, FPL denied the leaks until conditions worsened in 2014. In 2016, after the county found a radioactive isotope in water in the bay, state regulators gave the utility 10 years to clean up the plume. At the time, FPL said it would be done in five.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has long pushed the utility to switch to cooling towers, a more widely used technology that would allow the canals to return to wetlands.

Bill Nuttle, a hydrologist hired by the alliance, also said adding more water to the canals could put more pressure on the plume and cause it to spread. With the plume estimated to contain about 140 billion gallons, FPL needs to extract more water than currently planned, he said.

“They’re working at cross purposes,” he said.

But an FPL spokesman said Nuttle’s analysis oversimplified the mechanics of groundwater and failed to adequately consider the fresher water.

“He failed to consider the impact of the recovery well system on the area’s groundwater movement, and also failed to consider the decrease in the salinity and density of the water in the canals,” spokesman Peter Robbins wrote in an email.

Robbins also disputed the alliance’s claim that the utility had failed to address questions from the state and county about its modeling.

“It’s not true. SACE is wrong on this point,” he wrote.

The county has signed off on the modeling performed on clean-up work so far planned, Hefty said.

FPL has resisted replacing the canals with cooling towers because of the price, which Robbins said would cost at least $2.6 billion. SACE argued FPL is inflating the costs, but Robbins said “they don’t understand how the power plant works.”

FPL’s estimate, he said, includes not only the price of the towers, water treatment, civil work, a redesign, operating costs and relicensing fees, but the cost of shutting down the plant for an extended period of time.

Biscayne National Park
Because the water spreading underground from the plume spills into protected waters in Biscayne National Park, it needs to be cleaner than water dumped into the cooling canals, which are regulated as an industrial waste facility. Biscayne National Park

And while the county can’t regulate the water going into the canals because they are classified as an industrial wastewater facility, Hefty said he can regulate what comes out. Water going into Biscayne Bay, part of a national park, must be cleaner than treated wastewater because nutrients like phosphorus can pollute the pristine bay.

“It would be up to them to demonstrate that whatever water they put into the cooling canal system doesn’t violate our water standards outside the cooling canals,” he said.

But waiting to find polluted water once it exits the canals could be too late, environmentalists said.

“There are so many things converging,” Silverstein said. “Right now it’s focused on benefiting FPL, potentially causing pollution and not protecting Biscayne Bay or the drinking water supply.”

This story was updated to clarify water standards for Biscayne Bay.

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