FPL’s Turkey Point Costs Hit Customers; Lawsuit Moves Forward

George Cavros | January 22, 2018 | Energy Policy, Nuclear
One month ago the Florida Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates the state’s biggest power companies, approved FPL’s request to charge customer for the costs to clean-up an underground contamination plume caused by the cooling canal system (CSS) at its Turkey Point plant – the price tag is over $200 million. If you are a family or business in FPL’s territory, the impact will be felt starting with this month’s electricity bill. Meanwhile, a Clean Water Act lawsuit led by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) against FPL over Turkey Point’s pollution was given a green light to proceed after FPL’s move to dismiss the case was denied by a federal judge.

FPL operates the ten square mile CCS for its aging Turkey Point plant 3 & 4 reactors. FPL is the only utility in the country to use this antiquated system for cooling water for power generation—it’s essentially an open industrial sewer. The miles of canals are unlined, and due to the porous geology of south Florida, water from the canals has leached underground to form a plume of hyper-saline and contaminated water spreading westward in the Biscayne Aquifer towards drinking water wells and eastward into Biscayne National Park. The Biscayne Aquifer is the sole drinking water source for Miami-Dade County and the Keys.

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to ….

Water is the lifeblood of south Florida. While its millions of residents are surrounded by water, none of it is suitable for drinking. Fortunately, south Florida is home to one of the most prolific drinking aquifers in the world – the Biscayne Aquifer. Local governments have invested significant resources in tracking and fighting a saltwater intrusion line moving westward and migrating into drinking water resources. Federal, state and local governments have laws and regulations in place to protect those resources. FPL violated them.

In 1978, 1990 and 1992, FPL’s longtime consultant, Dames and Moore, conducted field investigations and provided ground water monitoring reports to FPL – regulators had required FPL to monitor the CSS’s impact on groundwater. The reports showed a significant and increasing salinity contribution from the CCS moving westward of the Turkey Point boundary in the Biscayne Aquifer. In 1978, increasing trends of salinity were observed in the five wells located on a line 2,000 feet west of the western boundary. By 2012, the contaminated water had migrated as far as 3 miles out from the western boundary of the CCS. The plume is now about 10 miles from the drinking water wells of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

What did FPL do with the data indicating a growing hypersaline plume caused by the CCS? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Company failed to take any action to address the impacts of the failing cooling canals on the Biscayne drinking water aquifer until 2013 – when the temperature and salinity spiked in the CCS as state regulators called-in FPL for a consultation. The Company was ultimately charged with violating state water quality standards and entered into agreements to clean up the mess.

FPL’s request for customers to pay was vigorously opposed by the Office of Public Counsel (OPC), SACE, and industrial users. The parties argued that FPL was negligent and knew, or should have known in 1978, but certainly by 1992 that the operation of the CSS was causing an underground hyper-saline plume growing in concentration and size miles beyond the Turkey Point boundary. The OPC expert witness testified that FPL’s clean-up proposal would not be effective in remediating the hypersaline plume.

Over 800 FPL customers filed letters with the Commission opposing cost recovery for FPL’s mistakes on the backs of customers. Although the case dealt with complex hydrogeological concepts and agreements going back 40 years, there was a simple thread that ran through the entire time frame: FPL never took any proactive action to deal with the growing contamination – until it was forced to by regulators. Despite FPL’s negligence, the Commission approved FPL’s request , supporting the utility’s “Pollute and Loot” behavior.

Clean Water Act suit moves forward

Some positive developments have occurred to protect our region from FPL’s Turkey Point mess. Around the same time as the Commission decision, Southern District Judge Darrin Gayles denied FPL’s motion to dismiss a federal citizen-suit case against FPL by SACE, Tropical Audubon and Friends of the Everglades. The judge has issued a scheduling order and the trial is now set for March of 2019.

The groups state in their complaint that FPL has violated and continues to violate its federal discharge permit for Turkey Point by unauthorized discharges of pollutants, including, but not limited to, excess salinity, phosphorus, ammonia, total nitrogen, and radioactive tritium, into waters of the United States in Biscayne Bay. Additionally, FPL has violated its permit by discharges of hypersaline water contaminated with radioactive tritium and other pollutants into ground water, threatening the water supply for Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.             

 Biscayne Bay  is the largest estuary on the coast of southeast Florida and is contiguous with the southern Florida Everglades and Florida Bay. It encompasses a marine ecosystem that  totals approximately 428 square miles. Its drainage area is 938 square miles, of which 350 are freshwater and coastal wetlands in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe Counties. It is home to Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the national park system. Not only is it a source for food, transportation, and commerce, it also offers boundless opportunities for recreation, such as boating, fishing, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.

 The groups have requested that the Court find FPL in violation of the Clean Water Act, and to impose civil penalties and support a remedy that stops further unauthorized discharges from Turkey Point. SACE supports the installation of mechanical draft cooling towers as a permanent technological solution to the CCS violations. In fact, SACE commissioned a report on the feasibility of the cooling towers. The take-away is that the cooling towers are economically feasible – in fact they are routinely used at other coal and nuclear power plants here in the U.S. and around the world. Short of retiring the reactor units, cooling towers are the only solution that permanently eliminates the source of continuing pollution of groundwater.

Stay tuned on the continuing developments in the Clean Water Act challenge as SACE continues to push FPL to make responsible energy choices that protect consumers’ wallets and preserve our shared critical water resources.


George Cavros
This blog was written by a former staff member of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
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