MIAMI — Months after an administrative judge ruled that the canal cooling system at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point power plant is the major cause of an underground saltwater plume threatening South Florida drinking water, regulators are considering the utility company’s proposal to remedy the problem.
While the pollution doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the public, the cost of fixing the problem is another story. FPL has said it’s likely customers will foot the bill for the plan to draw back the hypersaline water.
Critics told the Florida Record that would be unfair, and some aren’t convinced regulators will do much to stop it from happening because of the influence the utility company wields at the state level.
A 2012 report by Integrity Florida — a nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog — studied electric utility companies’ political influence and found that the four largest companies spend significant sums to lobby state lawmakers and contribute liberally to campaigns. The report concluded that state lawmakers and regulators tend to side with the companies instead of consumers.
“It sounds like more of the same to me,” Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity told the Record. “I think because of that influence, they’ll try to make a strong case that they should be able to pass it on to their customers.”
Turkey Point, a nuclear plant that sits between Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park, uses a closed loop of unlined canals to cool equipment. FPL has said hot and dry weather in 2014 raised the temperature of the canal waters, prompting the company to ask the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to raise the temperature limit from 100 degrees to 104 to avoid shutting down the reactors. Warmer water leads to more evaporation, which increased the salt content of the canals.
Earlier this year, a study commissioned by Miami-Dade County found that the canals were leaking contaminated water into the Biscayne Aquifer. The study found high levels of tritium — a radioactive isotope that’s often associated with nuclear plants. It was found in doses considered too low to be harmful. The report concluded that water from the canals has caused increased salinity in the aquifer.
The aquifer is the primary source of water for all of Miami-Dade and Broward counties and the southeastern part of Palm Beach County.
An administrative law judge criticized FPL and the Florida Department for Environmental Protection for not responding more quickly to the problem. In April, the DEP issued a notice of violation to FPL, requiring it to submit a plan to drawback the hypersaline water to the canal.
FPL submitted a plan in May to the DEP, the Miami-Dade Division of Environmental Resources Management and the South Florida Water Management District. The plan outlines a method that would start removing the too-salty water right away and retract it to the cooling canal within 10 years.
Long-term, FPL will use brackish water from an aquifer that isn’t being used for drinking water to control salinity levels in the cooling canals. The goal is to prevent hypersaline water from seeping into the aquifer in the future, spokesman Peter Robbins told the Record.
“We feel like this has been a very public process. We understand the importance of keeping the public and all the different agencies ... updated,” Robbins said. “We recognize the need to do this as quickly as we can but also correctly.”
FPL won’t be able to nail down how much recovery will cost or how the company will pay for it until after the plan is finalized. But at a meeting with state lawmakers, an FPL official estimated it could cost $50 million this year — and that could fall on customers’ shoulders.
That’s troubling, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told the Record.
“It’s incredibly concerning when you have a high cost shifted to customers,” she said. “Any time you increase the cost of electricity bills, that has real-life pocketbook issues.”
Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, agreed, saying a rate hike would allow FPL to avoid accountability for its mistakes.
“You pay if they do it right and you pay if they do it wrong,” Smith said. “There's no motivation for them to do it right. They just have to keep passing those costs on. If they knew that their shareholders would be on the hook for a portion of it, they may be making better decisions.”
The Florida Public Service Commission would have a say over any rate increase proposed to cover the remediation plan.
The commission plays a critical role in protecting consumers by reviewing the impact of an increase, Flores said. She has some faith that the PSC will agree that customers aren’t the right people to pay for the work.
While she thinks the DEP should have acted sooner, she considers it a win for customers that FPL postponed an expansion at the Turkey Point plant in light of the current problems because it reduces the burden they’re already asked to bear.
Smith isn’t as optimistic.
Despite its postponement, FPL still wants to recover $22 million next year from users for two additional reactors that may never be built. FPL also asked the PSC to waive the rule calling for an analysis of the feasibility of the project. Several groups, including SACE, have asked the commission to deny the waiver request.
SACE gave notice in March that it’s considering a lawsuit against FPL under the Clean Water Act for the Turkey Point contamination. Originally, it was labeled as an attempt to pressure regulators to take action. SACE continues to collect information for a potential suit but it’s waiting to pull the trigger until after it has evaluated regulators’ response to FPL’s plan to fix the problem.
“I think the way to look at it is probably two different things: How do they remediate the bad situation that they created over the 40 years of operation there that has led to this hypersaline plume migrating through groundwater and into Biscayne Bay. But then there's also a component about what are they’re doing going forward that makes sense so this isn't recreated,” Smith said. “There's a real question about whether they have a long term plan for dealing with this.”
SACE wants FPL to install cooling towers to ensure a safer system that uses less water. Robbins said such a project would require retrofitting the entire plant.
“It would be a major undertaking. Turkey Point is not designed for that,” Robbins said. “Our goal is keeping the canal system healthy.”