Florida Power & Light’s troubled cooling canals, blamed for contaminating groundwater and now found to be leaking into Biscayne Bay, are likely violating local water laws and federal operating permits, critics said on Tuesday.
Following the release of a report that found a radioactive “tracer” at levels up to 215 times more than normal in Biscayne Bay, Miami-Dade County commissioners called for quicker action and closer scrutiny of the nuclear power plant’s canals. The county’s chief environmental regulator said he planned to issue another violation — the county cited the utility in October for polluting groundwater — to force FPL to take more steps to fix the chronic problems.
Critics, including state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, environmentalists and neighboring rock miners, also demanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervene.
“This is the last straw,” Rodriguez said. “Evidence of radioactive material at high density in Biscayne Bay? How much more do we need to see?”
Rodriguez and others said the state has repeatedly failed to address worsening conditions. In February, a Tallahassee judge ordered the state to redo an administrative order managing the canals, saying it lacked the most “fundamental element of an enforcement action: charges.”
On Monday, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez released the latest damning document: A county monitoring study that found water sampled in December and January contained high amounts of tritium, a radioactive isotope found in water used to cool nuclear reactors. While the tritium falls far below levels that experts consider dangerous, the telltale tracer provided the critical link that high levels of ammonia and phosphorus in sections of bay bottom — pollution that is more damaging to marine life — likely came from the canals.
Environmentalists now suspect that new outbreaks of algae blooms detected in the bay over the last decade may be tied to canal water. They say the utility’s federal operating permit also prohibits it from dumping water into the bay.
“Biscayne Bay has traditionally not had algae blooms,” said Rachel Silverstein, a marine biologist and Miami Waterkeeper executive director. “That’s from pollution. From sewers, septic tanks and now we know, cooling canals.”
FPL has battled problems in the canal since it uprated the plant to produce more energy nearly three years ago. FPL officials say they anticipated some temperature increase, but expected it to be offset when they shut down an old coal-powered plant.
But in the summer of 2014, conditions worsened. An algae bloom spread and temperatures soared above operating limits. FPL proposed fixing the canals by pumping more fresh water — up to 100 million gallons a day — into the canals from a nearby waterway. But new research from University of Miami hydrologist David Chin found that the addition of so much water likely made conditions worse outside the canals.
As water got higher in the canals, the underground saltwater plume, advancing at a rate of about 150 feet per year, worsened. It now appears the saltier, heavier groundwater also spread east into the bay.
Despite the findings, FPL officials say their five-year monitoring shows no change in the overall health of the bay.
“When you look at the big picture, [the canals] are not impacting Biscayne Bay,” said Matt Raffenberg, FPL's environmental services director.
FPL officials also say the tests they helped the county conduct show elevated levels of ammonia and phosphorus only in deepwater trenches dredged into the shallow bay and closest to the cooling canals. That, they say, suggests the migrating groundwater is staying put and not circulating.
“These elevated levels do not occur in shallow areas in the bay, or areas that have flow,” spokeswoman Bianca Cruz wrote in an email.
But Lee Hefty, chief of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, said otherwise.
“Through normal process and wave energy, that water potentially mixes with shallow water in Biscayne Bay,” he said.
Cruz also noted that multiple agencies have kept an eye on FPL’s own monitoring and a variety of permits were obtained to pump the additional water. But critics say much of that scrutiny came from state environmental regulatory agencies heavily influenced by the state’s Republican-controlled lawmakers, who receive regular donations from the utility.
“Our shareholders are the public, the people who depend on that water,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve got to go into solution mode with that in mind and not in reference to how much money some people or some companies want to make.”
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa asked that the county staff begin providing regular updates at monthly commission meetings. The county is now in the midst of enforcing a consent decree hammered out to resolve a threat to drinking water supplies in South Miami-Dade: a westward advance of a saltwater plume, which is dumping about 600,000 pounds of salt a day. Under that action, FPL must install a series of extraction wells to pump out the water. The water will then be pumped into an injection well that deposits polluted water in the boulder zone deep in the Floridan aquifer.
FPL has started preliminary tests on the wells to determine where to install them, Raffenberg said. The wells must be completed by October 2017.
While the wells would help stop some of the canal water from migrating east into the bay, Hefty said a new set of fixes would probably be required to fix problems in the bay.
Gimenez also said he was in talks with the utility to come up with a more modern method of treating the canals, which, ironically, resulted from a 1970s federal lawsuit aimed at keeping water out of the bay.
“We’ve had stop gap measures we’ve approved. So far they’ve not proved to be the solution,” he said. “It’s time we enter the 21st century.”
Environmentalists who have repeatedly complained about the canals say the latest tests show that efforts so far to clean up the canals have moved too slowly. Echoing Rodriguez, Laura Reynolds of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a pro-solar group she says plans to file a federal complaint, said the EPA needs to take control.
“We have all the evidence we need to make FPL come into compliance with the law,” she said. “We’re not going to wait around for action.”