Environment

FPL sued by environmentalists over South Florida cooling canals

Environmental groups sued Florida Power & Light this week, asking a federal court to order the utility to clean up canal water that has leaked into Biscayne Bay and seeped underground about 4 miles to the west.
Environmental groups sued Florida Power & Light this week, asking a federal court to order the utility to clean up canal water that has leaked into Biscayne Bay and seeped underground about 4 miles to the west. emichot@miamiherald.com

Environmentalists sued Florida Power & Light this week, alleging the nation’s sixth-largest electrical plant violated the Clean Water Act by leaking dirty water from its Turkey Point cooling canals into Biscayne Bay and fouling nearby groundwater.

The suit, filed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Tropical Audubon with Friends of the Everglades slotted to join later, asks a federal court to order FPL to stop the pollution and clean up an underground plume that has spread into the bay and four miles to the west. The groups also want FPL to pay up to $37,500 a day for violations dating back to 2010, or nearly $76 million.

This is really a vote of no confidence because we believe that the system has become captive.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

“This is really a vote of no confidence because we believe that the system has become captive,” said SACE executive director Stephen Smith. “The polluters of the state are able to control the regulators in such a way that effective regulatory action does not take place.”

The suit follows months of wrangling by environmentalists, neighboring cities and regulators over operation of the 40-year-old unlined canals that for years have been leaking through the region’s porous limestone.

The canal network, the only one its kind, is used to cool the plant’s two nuclear reactors as well as two old fossil fuel-powered units that are now being dismantled. Although FPL’s own records show engineers years ago warned that the canals might fail, it wasn’t until a regional drought caused water temperatures to spike in the summer of 2014 and twice caused the reactors to shut down that scrutiny intensified.

The state drew up a new management plan, which found the canals had failed and up to 600,000 pounds of salt a day were being loaded into the surrounding aquifer.

600,000 poundsThe amount of salt escaping daily from the aging cooling canals

But the plan, which failed to pin the blame on FPL, quickly drew appeals and led an administrative law judge in February to conclude it lacked the “most fundamental element of an enforcement action: a violation.”

Increased monitoring by Miami-Dade County finally confirmed this winter that tritium, a radioactive isotope used to track canal water, had also turned up in Biscayne Bay. The findings finally seem to set the stage for a comprehensive clean-up.

But in June, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a new administrative order that gives the utility 10 years to clean up the canals.

“It’s just a recycled agreement,” said Laura Reynolds, former director of Tropical Audubon and now a consultant for SACE. “It seems like it was written for FPL and by FPL and DEP just signed it.”

The fixes proposed by FPL — to remove salty canal water with a series of retraction wells and inject into the boulder zone using an existing deeper well and freshening canals with brackish water from the Floridian aquifer — do too little, the group said.

“Anytime you have a cleanup scenario you have to stop the source,” Reynolds said. “All they’re proposing is dilution and then storage of that dilution.”

FPL accused SACE of using the lawsuit to stage a “publicity stunt.”

“SACE’s lawsuit will do absolutely nothing to help the environment. In fact, it will very likely cause delays and increase costs of the environmental improvements by forcing countless hours of depositions and other activity that will divert the time and energy of the scientists and other employees who are currently working on solutions,” spokeswoman Bianca Cruz said in a statement.

SACE’s lawsuit will do absolutely nothing to help the environment. In fact, it will very likely cause delays and increase costs.

FPL spokeswoman Biana Cruz

“As SACE knows, the proper state and local agencies and their qualified experts have been using science and facts to make sure the right action is taken,” she wrote. “A responsible environmental advocate would respect that process and not attempt to grab headlines and divert attention from the efforts to solve this.”

The utility also said the group’s suggested remedy — cooling towers routinely used in more modern reactors — would need water not readily available and are too expensive.

Miami-Dade County, which cited FPL for violating county water rules with the westward plume, is in the midst of negotiating its own fixes. Division of Environmental Resources Management Chief Lee Hefty said Wednesday he also hopes to issue a violation for bay waters in the next few weeks and is also working on additional monitoring.

“What we’re interested in doing is making sure the facility is adequately monitored and that we all understand the relationship between the facility and water resources in the surrounding area,” he said.

But Smith worries the county’s authority falls short of the true fixes needed. He suspects the utility also has more information that it is releasing, which discovery obtained during the lawsuit could expose.

“You have a 10-square mile open industrial sewer that is like nothing else in the world,” Smith said. “It is failing and has been failing for decades and it needs to be fixed once and for all.”

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