Miami-Dade settles Turkey Point dispute over cooling canals

Miami-Dade County has settled its dispute with Florida Power & Light over aging cooling canals with a plan that calls for the utility to pump the cooling water into wells deep in the Floridan aquifer.
Miami-Dade County has settled its dispute with Florida Power & Light over aging cooling canals with a plan that calls for the utility to pump the cooling water into wells deep in the Floridan aquifer. Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade County ended its fight with Florida Power & Light this week over the troubled cooling canal system at Turkey Point by agreeing to a plan that sends the algae-choked, super salty water deep into the aquifer, far from drinking water supplies.

For environmentalists, the plan falls short of fixing looming problems in a region threatened by dwindling water supplies.

“It doesn’t solve the perpetual demand on water. It doesn’t solve the salt load on the aquifer. And it doesn’t solve the damage to Biscayne Bay,” said Tropical Audubon Executive Director Laura Reynolds. “They could have dug their heels in and gotten more from FPL.”

Controversy over the 40-year-old canals erupted last summer when water temperatures soared and threatened to shut down the plant’s two nuclear reactors. While FPL officials say this summer’s temperatures have been lower, the increasingly salty canals may have taken a toll: The number of crocodile nests along the canals dropped from 22 a year ago to nine this year, University of Florida researchers reported last month. The number of baby crocs fell from 400 to 100.

Under the deal, signed a day after the county officially cited the utility for violating county water standards in at least four wells, FPL agreed to begin taking steps to lower the salinity in canals, which at one point climbed to three times the levels in nearby Biscayne Bay. The utility must also stop the water from spreading and polluting nearby groundwater.

In striking the deal, FPL officials acknowledged damage caused by the canals.

“We do not contest this notice of violation and are committed to taking the appropriate actions to address the concerns raised,” spokesman Greg Brostowicz said.

The plan lays out a complicated fix that involves the short-term use of sea water and water from a nearby drainage canal. For the long-term, FPL will consider using reclaimed wastewater from a nearby county water and sewer treatment plant. A bigger fix requires the injection wells that would catch and pump heavier, saltier canal water deep into the Floridan aquifer into an area called the boulder zone. The county uses the same method to dispose of wastewater, said Lee Hefty, director of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management.

“We‘re talking about sucking water out of the shallow porous aquifer and pumping it deep down below to the confining layers where it won’t communicate with the porous layers,” he said.

The utility will also begin looking at changes to a barrier canal dug years ago and intended to keep cooling water from migrating west. The county, along with environmentalists and scientists, have repeatedly complained that the canal, called an interceptor ditch, has long failed as water in the closed canals of the cooling system grew saltier and heavier, passing under the barrier canal.

The canals work like a massive radiator but began running hotter after the utility completed work to increase power generated by the plant. FPL officials have said temperatures spiked not from the expansion, called an up-rating, but because a temporary shutdown during work allowed the algae bloom to spread.

FPL obtained permission from nuclear regulators to run the canals at a higher temperature to keep the canals operating. But the hotter water worsened a the festering bloom. When the utility asked state water managers for permission to pump canal water from a nearby drainage canal to help clean up the canals, the request drew more attention to another, potentially more critical problem: the growing underwater plume of saltwater.

While the plan may keep the plume from spreading, Reynolds says it does nothing to correct pressure from the 5,900-acre canal system on the aquifer directly below it or keep saltier canal water from moving east and polluting Biscayne Bay. Tropical Audubon, along with nearby rock mining company and the city of Miami have taken legal steps on several fronts to force the utility to clean up the canals. Two cases are set to begin next week and in November.

“It’s a heavy lift for a small group like Tropical,” Reynolds said, “but we are holding their feet to the fire on the damages to Biscayne Bay and we’re the only party really concerned with that.”

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich