Opposition is mounting to a proposed pollution permit that would, for the first time, allow water seeping from a 5,900-acre network of cooling canals at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point nuclear plant to move beyond plant boundaries in southern Miami-Dade County.
The proposed permit, a revision to a February 2019 draft, was quietly published last month, opening up two weeks of public comment that ended last week.
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The Everglades Coalition, which represents 60 environmental groups, and Miami Waterkeeper, along with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association are considering a legal challenge.
“There are violations out there right now. There are water quality concerns all around the plant,” said Laura Reynolds, a member of the coalition and environmental consultant representing the guides association. “But this permit moves forward as if there are not water quality problems.”
The revised draft, Reynolds said, still does too little to improve monitoring for the canals that have been in the midst of a $200 million cleanup plan. The notice alerting the public also landed the same day the U.S. Supreme Court decided a decades-long battle over whether the Clean Water Act can regulate pollution from groundwater, like the kind spreading from the canals.
“It changes how the permit may be applied to the pollution coming from the plant,” said Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein. “It's setting a new standard. A lot of very smart attorneys are looking at the implications of this, not just for Turkey Point, but a lot of other places where there's water contamination.”
This is the first new pollution permit in more than a decade and comes after state environmental regulators and Miami-Dade County began wrestling with how to stop polluted canal water from seeping into groundwater. The heavier, saltier water has helped propel a saltwater plume westward, threatening drinking water supplies for the Florida Keys.
The canals were dug in the 1970s as an alternative to dumping canal water directly into Biscayne Bay after the Environmental Protection Agency sued, fearful that canal water would damage seagrass beds and the bay’s health. The plant also drains other industrial waste water into the canals.
To keep the water from moving through Florida’s porous limestone, a deeper canal, called an interceptor ditch, was dug along the western border but ultimately failed.
In 2014, the canals came under scrutiny after they began running hot and salinity in the canals spiked. That drew attention to the spreading plume. Despite denials from FPL, regulators confirmed canals water was driving the plume and seeping into the bay. That launched the cleanup effort, which is supposed to retract the plume within 10 years and stop its forward progress by May 2021.
Miami-Dade County environmental regulators complained in February that the first version of the permit failed to adequately monitor the water, relying on an existing network rather than creating one with wells better located to track pollution.
This month the county’s chief environmental regulator, Lee Hefty, said the new permit addresses concerns.
“It's not perfect, but it certainly holds them accountable now to the water quality standards,” Hefty said. “What this permit does is, it incorporates a significant number of stations that have been developed over the last 10 or 12 years or so, because if you recall, when this facility was developed decades ago, there was monitoring and then the monitoring sort of diminished considerably over time.”
A report issued by FPL in November said cleanup efforts, which involve pumping out saltwater, flushing it underground and pumping in millioins of gallons of freshwater from a nearby canal, are on track. In an email, FDEP said FPL had met all its deadlines so far. But in six months it will meet a critical deadline: lowering salinity to match nearby bay water, a key fix to stop the canals from fueling the plume. Records show the salinity is still above bay waters, hovering about 20 units higher.
There is also growing debate over freshwater supplies, needed to revive the canals at the bottom of the state where Everglades marshes also need water. In January, Miami-Dade complained that FPL was using too much for a mitigation bank, endangering restoration work and cleanup efforts.
“How can you issue a new permit when these issues haven’t been resolved,” Reynolds said. “There’s a timeline on correcting them and once they’recorrected, great. Issue a new permit.”
FDEP did not respond to questions about the timing of the permit or the length of the comment period.