A Tallahassee judge has ordered state environmental regulators and Florida Power & Light to clean up the utility’s troubled cooling canals at Turkey Point after blaming the system for polluting South Florida’s groundwater.
In the sharpest indictment yet of the aging canals, Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter found that the canals had caused a massive underground saltwater plume to grow, threatening to contaminate wellfields providing drinking water for the Florida Keys and parts of Miami-Dade County. Florida regulators, the judge found, then let the utility off the hook by failing to stop the pollution when the state’s Department of Environmental Protection approved a faulty management plan in the midst of the Christmas holiday more than a year ago over the objections of nearby cities, the county, environmentalists and rock miners.
The plan, Canter wrote, “lacks the most fundamental element of an enforcement action: charges.”
For the utility, now collecting money from customers to build two more reactors at the plant, the ruling comes as a stinging rebuke. For years, FPL denied the 40-year-old canals had contributed to the saltwater plume that has migrated more than four miles inland, far more than in other parts of the county. But two summers ago when temperatures in the canals spiked, nearly forcing the shutdown of two reactors, FPL was forced to reckon with what Canter described as a “preponderance of … evidence.”
FPL estimates that the canals are now dumping 600,000 pounds of salt into the Biscayne aquifer.
Despite that evidence, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection told Canter the state was unable to cite a specific violation.
“To be honest, the groundwater standards are a little clunky in these coastal areas,” Sarah Doar, an attorney for the state agency, said at a November hearing.
Critics say the state has a far too cozy relationship with the utility it is charged with regulating.
“They’re using the Biscayne aquifer and the bay as their toilet for their industrial waste from their facility,” said Ed Swakon, a consulting engineer for rock miner Altantic Civil, which sued FPL because the spreading plume is threatening to shut down operations at one of the company’s most lucrative mines.
“Finally, somebody is holding FPL accountable,” he said.
FPL officials say they will continue to follow regulatory requirements and are making progress in improving the canals. Since the summer of 2014 when hot canal water nearly forced the utility to shut down its two reactors twice, temperatures have dropped and salinity fallen from nearly three times levels in the nearby bay to just above normal ocean levels. FPL has also returned to removing vegetation in the canals after dumping herbicides to kill an algae bloom.
Still, the crisis calls into question the future of the canals and what to do with the underground plume, which appears to be moving into the nearby bay, a federally protected national park.
“The question is what do we do now,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. “We have an existing system for the cooling canals that is antiquated and the makeshift solutions are inadequate and risky.”
When the canals first began failing, FPL scrambled to obtain permission from nuclear regulators to operate the canals at 104 degrees, the highest temperatures in the nation. The utility also asked state water managers for emergency permission to pump millions of gallons of fresh water into the system, a remedy that critics worry may solve FPL’s woes but leave South Floridians scrambling for fresh water.
The deepening canal problem coincided with federal reviews ongoing for two additional proposed reactors and in part caused nuclear regulators to take an ongoing second look at potential environmental impacts.
The high temperatures in the cooling canals follow a $3 billion “up-rating” project by FPL in 2013 to produce 15 percent more power from the existing reactors. FPL has blamed a lack of rain and other factors for the temperature spike and the administrative judge found there wasn’t yet enough evidence to blame the uprating entirely for the canal problems. But state environmental protection officials worried that the change might affect the cooling canals and included a clause calling for a review if operating conditions changed.
They did dramatically and the summer crisis at Turkey Point led to the Dec. 23 management plan, which drew lawsuits not only from environmental groups, but nearby cities, the county and rock miners, complaining that the state was doing too little to protect water supplies.
They also complained that FPL has been allowed to continue operating the canals even though its federal pollution permit expired by filing simply for extensions.
“We’re not even keeping the utility in compliance,” said Laura Reynolds, former director of Tropical Audubon now working for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “To me, that’s a loophole.”
In October, the county settled its lawsuit by striking a deal with FPL that calls for cleaning up the canals with a complex fix that involves the short-term use of bay water. For the longterm, the utility will consider using reclaimed water from a nearby sewage treatment plant and drilling injection wells that would catch and pump heavier saltwater deep into the Floridan aquifer and into the boulder zone.
Part of that decree also included increased monitoring, which uncovered another potential problem: cooling canal water that appears to have migrated into Biscayne Bay and triggered higher levels of ammonia. The county is now investigating whether the ammonia is linked to the canals and will present a report to county commissioners in March.
As part of the decree, University of Miami hydrologist David Chin also took a look at FPL’s clean-up plan to pump up to 100 million gallons of water a day from the nearby L-31 canal. Chin found major problems. Because evaporation rates will likely continue to outpace rainfall in the area, the salinity in the canals will continue to rise, he said. Pumping more fresh water from the canals could lower salinity, but also raise water levels in the canal, putting more pressure on the underground salt plume and spreading it even further.
Chin also took issue with FPL’s explanation for the canal problems. FPL has said the temperature increase stemmed from a festering algae bloom the utility said spread after the cooling canals were temporarily shut down during the 2013 expansion. FPL said because one of the plant’s five units was retired, no additional heat was going into the canals. But Chin, who looked at data from 2010 to 2014, disputed that and said more work was needed to determine the relationship between the canals and the plant expansion.
FPL spokesman Greg Brostowicz said Chin’s findings were made without the utility’s input or more recent data.
“It would have been a more complete report had we had the opportunity to provide input to Dr. Chin’s review,” he said.
Given the state’s lax oversight, critics say it’s time for federal environmental regulators to step in. DEP officials did not respond to a request for comment.
“DEP should be stripped of its responsibility because this isn’t the only case. All over the state we’re seeing the degradation of the Clean Water Act, but this is a really precise example,” Reynolds said.
“Adding freshwater into the system is not going to fix it,” she said. “You still are operating a canal system that concentrates salt. You can’t get away from the root problem.”