Emails show Miami-Dade worried Turkey Point canal permit could violate federal rule

Florida environmental regulators are poised to issue a new pollution permit to cooling canals at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point power plant, pictured here in 2016, for the first time in a decade.
Florida environmental regulators are poised to issue a new pollution permit to cooling canals at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point power plant, pictured here in 2016, for the first time in a decade. emichot@miamiherald.com

A draft pollution permit for Turkey Point’s troubled cooling canals now being considered by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection may violate federal rules, according to internal emails from Miami-Dade County environmental regulators.

In December, state officials asked Miami-Dade to weigh in on a new permit for the canals, a cooling system tailor-made for the 1970s-era Turkey Point plant as an alternative to dumping plant water into Biscayne Bay. It is the only such nuclear cooling system in the U.S.

The draft permit is also the first following years of mounting problems that led state and county regulators to cite Florida Power & Light for polluting bay water. The agency initially gave local officials just three days to respond before extending the deadline by two weeks.

In public comments, county officials warned the proposed permit needed to beef up monitoring for leaking canal water, which also fueled a massive saltwater plume in the region’s drinking water aquifer.

But emails provided to the Miami Herald in response to a records request indicate county staff had another concern: violating federal backsliding rules created to protect against pollution.

Earlier permits “indicate there were no discharges authorized to surface waters and that discharges from the cooling canal system were strictly prohibited,” coastal and wetlands resources manager Pamela Sweeney wrote to Wilbur Mayorga, the county’s pollution chief, in early January. “It appears that discharges to surface waters via ‘seepage’ from the cooling canal system are being introduced and authorized.”

If so, the change would defy federal rules that forbid new permits from being less strict than old permits after water violations occur, Sweeney wrote.

Cooling Canal aerial 2019 google maps.PNG
A 2019 Google Earth image of the cooling canals at Turkey Point that are used to cool two nuclear reactors and hold wastewater from the plant.

DEP did not answer questions about Sweeney’s worries, instead saying monitoring was intended to address seepage concerns.

“The comment period is still on-going, and the purpose of the comment period is to receive input from the public and other governmental agencies,” spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email. “The Department will consider all comments received before moving forward with issuing the final renewal permit.”

Miami-Dade also did not include questions about the back-sliding rule in its comments, but instead focused on monitoring. When asked why, spokesman Tere Flores said in an email:

“DERM’s comment letter to FDEP did raise concerns over seepage, and the need for the draft permit to be revised to clearly identify the points of compliance in both ground and surface water and to include conditions to enforce the applicable water quality standards.”

The rewrite to the permit raised concern among environmentalists and scientists who worry a $200 million cleanup effort now underway could actually worsen seepage because it calls for more water to be added to the canals. They fear the heavier canal water, which is twice as salty as the bay, will only continue to sink downward.

FPL is pumping millions of gallons of saltwater out from the aquifer beneath the canals to retract the plume. As part of the cleanup and a plan now being hammered out with county sewer officials to use treated wastewater for cooling, FPL could more than double the amount of water being pumped into canals, which began running hotter after the utility upgraded reactors to produce more power.

In her memo, Sweeney said DEP officials argued they could allow seepage in the revised permit because the water standard that protects nearby bay waters and prohibits them from being degraded occurred after the canals began operating in 1973. The state named parts of the nearby bay Outstanding Florida Waters in 1979 and 1982. The state can exempt a facility from the standard and allow pollution, but how that happens is a little tricky.

According to Sweeney’s email, if it’s in the public interest, the state can issue an exemption for facilities that might lead to pollution. But for that to happen, the state would have had to have allowed a discharge to surface waters before the designation occurred. And Sweeney found no mention of seepage in previous permits dating back to 1978.

Sweeney also talked to a rule-making specialist at the state’s water quality division to confirm her understanding, according to the memo. The specialist asked if previous permits had recognized discharges to the bay or any other surface waters. Sweeney said they not only didn’t recognize discharges, but strictly forbade them. Given the violations triggered by seepage in 2016, the specialist concluded seepage to surface waters could also not be grandfathered in.

In addition to federal rules that prohibit issuing permits less restrictive than previous permits, Sweeney also looked at new state rules issued in 2010 when the state set numeric limits for different kinds of pollution. She could find no mention of grandfathering either the canals or any other facilities that might violate the limits.

State environmental officials and FPL have said the change in language simply clarifies their growing understanding of the hydrology under and around the canals and that the movement of groundwater, and seepage, was always a factor.

“The 1972 Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that some seepage of water from the [cooling canals] may reach surface waters,” the proposed permit reads.

But at the time the canals were dug, scientists knew far less about underground movement than they do now. In 2003, county water and sewer managers ignited a mini panic when they injected red dye into the ground to see how fast water traveled through Miami’s oolite and wound up turning tap water pink. They expected water to take three to four days to travel about 330 feet. Instead it took four hours.

After monitoring wells were installed around the canals, FPL continued to insist the canals were not worsening the underground plume and still argue that tritium, the radioactive tracer found at levels 250 times higher than normal in bay water near the canals, could be coming from someplace else.

The state has extended a public comment period to mid-March, but the comments must follow a complicated set of rules including citing rules which should be reversed. The agency also plans on holding a public meeting, but has not yet released details.

This story was updated to include a response from county officials Wednesday night.

Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.