Florida Power & Light will have 10 years to clean up a massive underground plume of saltwater threatening drinking water well fields near its Turkey Point plant under a deal struck with state environmental regulators.
In a 25-page order issued Monday, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection spelled out a plan that requires the utility to begin freshening and improving the efficiency of the 5,900-acre loop of canals used to cool two nuclear reactors at the plant. The plan also requires FPL to install a network of extraction wells to halt and ultimately shrink the plume, which has migrated more than five miles inland over the decades.
To ensure the measures work, DEP officials included periodic milestones that require the utility to provide evidence that the salt front is retreating.
But even with checkpoints built in, critics who have pushed the state for more oversight say plenty of questions remain over whether the plan goes far enough or works fast enough.
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It appears to be different than some of the conversations we had with DEP about how it’s going to work.
Ed Swakon, engineer for rocking mining company Atlantic Civil
“It appears to be different than some of the conversations we had with DEP about how it’s going to work,” said Ed Swakon, an engineer hired by Atlantic Civil, which operates nearby rock mines. “Until we can talk to them and clarify, it’s going to be hard for us to weigh in.”
The order comes amid increasing regulatory action against the utility after neighboring cities, the county, environmentalists and Atlantic Civil sued. Miami-Dade County is reviewing its own cleanup plan, ordered after county staff in March found the canals had leaked into Biscayne Bay and caused an increase in ammonia, which can harm marine life. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman said county staff was still assessing the state’s plan, so could not comment.
FPL has been wrestling with problems at the plant since 2014 when temperatures in the canals spiked during a regional drought. The crisis twice caused the plant’s two nuclear reactors to power down but also shed light on a thornier problem — for decades, salinity in canals used to cool the plant has been creeping up and causing an underground plume of saltwater to spread.
FPL had known about the problem for years, records revealed, pushing fixes that their own engineers warned could worsen the plume. The powerful utility — in the last six years, FPL has given $17 million to political campaigns — had also managed to fend off regulators.
Once the cleanup begins, FPL officials say the majority of the plume should shrink in the first five years.
We expect to see improvements in ground water quality [to] begin as soon as the recovery system is operational.
FPL spokesman Peter Robbins
“We expect to see improvements in ground water quality [to] begin as soon as the recovery system is operational, but keep in mind the recovery well system is designed to draw back the hypersaline plume gradually, without harming nearby wetlands or causing adverse environmental impacts,” spokesman Peter Robbins said in an email.
In the first year alone, cleanup costs are projected to cost about $50 million, Robbins said. Based on preliminary estimates, officials expect the typical customer bill to increase 25 to 50 cents a month, he said.
To reduce the salt plume, FPL plans on first reducing salinity in canal water, which had spiked to more than three times nearby sea water, by adding up to 15 million gallons of water daily from the Floridan aquifer. The state is requiring salinity to mirror nearby bay water. Electromagnetic mapping will then be used to measure the size of the plume.
The state also wants to expand water quality monitoring, which had lapsed over the years and may have allowed the growing plume to go undetected.
When the canals were first dug in the 1970s to keep the utility from dumping cooling water directly into the bay, dozens of monitoring wells were installed because engineers feared salty canal water would begin spreading. In recent years, the number dropped to a handful. The plan calls for renewed monitoring in wells far west of the canals, in neighborhoods between the Homestead Speedway and Florida’s Turnpike, and south of Atlantic Civil’s rock mines.
FPL will also begin monitoring water in Biscayne Bay, although locations picked for sampling don’t appear to be near points where groundwater naturally leaks into the bay, which could provide a better indication of canal water in the bay.
To address leaks, state regulators have signed off on an FPL plan to fill two cuts in the bay dredged decades ago for barges carrying fuel to the plant. Bringing them back to shallow bay depths will presumably stop the groundwater leakage. The state has also ordered FPL to sell nearby wetlands critical to an Everglades restoration project aimed at restoring the flow of freshwater to Biscayne Bay.
Whether the measures adequately address problems, or even cause more harm, remains in question, said Laura Reynolds, a consultant for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“This isn’t real abatement. We still have the same mass of salt being generated every day, which means we still have problems for saltwater intrusion,” she said.
The state is also not requiring the utility to replace the outdated cooling canal system with cooling towers, the method used by more modern reactors.
“Our biggest disappointment is that DEP lays the groundwork for use of the cooling canal system beyond the life of the current nuclear plants,” Reynolds said in a statement.
If the plan fails to adequately address issues, more legal action will likely follow. A notice of intent to sue filed by Tropical Audubon and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy expires in about two weeks.