If you have been following this issue, you may know that there was a federal lawsuit filed in July 2016 against FPL for violating the Clean Water Act (CWA) at its Turkey Point power plant, the nuclear facility that is approximately 3 miles from Ocean Reef. In the lawsuit, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Friends of the Everglades (FOE) and Tropical Audubon Society (Tropical) allege that FPL has not been complying with the its zero-discharge permit (NPDES). Below, we explain what this means to you.Guest Blog | January 31, 2017
Prepared by: Laura Reynolds on behalf of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE)
If you have been following this issue, you may know that there was a federal lawsuit filed in July 2016 against FPL for violating the Clean Water Act (CWA) at its Turkey Point power plant, the nuclear facility that is approximately 3 miles from Ocean Reef. In the lawsuit, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Friends of the Everglades (FOE) and Tropical Audubon Society (Tropical) allege that FPL has not been complying with the its zero-discharge permit (NPDES). Below, we explain what this means to you.
Industrialized fossil fuel and nuclear power plants run massive quantities of water continuously through the units in part to cool them down in order to prevent the consequences of overheating. The water used to cool down the hot units is called “cooling water.” But imagine pouring water into a hot pan on your kitchen stove. The water gets hot pretty quickly, but the pot itself cools just a bit. The same result happens at a power plant. The cooling water heats up as it cools the units. But different from pouring water into an enclosed hot pan, at a power plant, the water must flow out of the units. This flow is referred to as a “discharge.” At Turkey Point in south Miami-Dade County the daily discharge is in the hundreds of millions of gallons of water every day.
When FPL first began operating Turkey Point in the late 1960s, the heated cooling water was discharged by a pipe directly into Biscayne Bay, killing much of the marine nursery grounds around it. The negative impacts were clear and easily understood. In the early 1970’s, at about the same time the U.S. EPA was established and President Nixon signed the CWA into law, a federal judge in Miami required FPL to stop the direct discharges of heated water into the Bay. A holding area of sorts for the discharge water, which includes many contaminants, was developed. Ultimately, the “holding pond” became an approximately 10 square mile area of connecting canals carved into the limestone that acts like a radiator and looks like the long back-and-forth lines at Disney World. These “cooling canals” are the first and only experiment of its kind; no other nuclear power plant relies on such an antiquated concept. The cooling canals were constructed in porous leaky limestone with no liners to contain the heated water—essentially an open industrial sewer. And although the heated cooling water was stopped from directly discharging into Biscayne Bay by instead being dumped into the cooling canals, according to decades of data the discharges have been slowly leaking through the porous limestone in every direction into the aquifer and into Biscayne Bay for as long as the canals have been operating.
Below are some frequently asked questions about what’s happening at Turkey Point and what can be done. Please click on the question for the corresponding answer.
- What is in the leaking discharge water?
- Why litigate when regulatory agencies are supposed to protect the environment?
- Where are the discharges?
- What are the effects of the discharges into Biscayne Bay?
- Is there a feasible solution to the discharges?
- What does it cost to remedy the legacy discharges of contaminants and who will pay for it?
- How do Turkey Point’s water issues intersect with Everglades Restoration?
- What can I do as a resident and or member of Ocean Reef Club? Who can I contact?
We know that salt water leaks through the limestone but is also recycled from the canals back to the units for cooling and then discharged again. As the recycled water gets hot it is discharged into the cooling canals and flows up and down the linked canals. Much of the water evaporates because of its heat and that the canals are in the typically hot environment of South Florida. The water that does not evaporate contains an enormous amount of salt and other pollutants. Again, back to the pot on the stove, if you pour salt into the hot water and continue to heat the pot, the water will evaporate but the salt does not. Now imagine that scenario occurring consistently all day every day for over four decades. As the heated water has evaporated, hundreds of millions of pounds of salt has remained and been forced through the pores of the limestone in every direction.
We also know that power plants are polluting facilities that generate and use chemicals, solvents, and generate a multitude of wastes. The state of Florida has designated FPL’s cooling canals at Turkey Point as an “Industrial Waste Water Facility.” This means that the liquid wastes generated and used at the power plant, whether solvents or bi-products of nuclear generation, are discharged into the cooling canals. Some of these discharges include petroleum-based chemicals and solvents, some have low levels of radioactivity, metals such as copper are known to be in the canals, ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous, chlorophyll, sodium and other pollutants are all freely discharged. But neither the state nor the federal government requires FPL to disclose every substance that is discharged into the cooling canals. The result is that no one but FPL knows what is in the canals or the concentrations of those contaminants; and therefore only FPL would know all the contaminants that have leaked into the groundwater and into Biscayne Bay over the last four decades. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, but FPL has not told anyone either.
The short answer from our investigation is that FPL appeared to be a good corporate citizen for a long time in Florida. But over time, the salt was building and building and the regulators were simply not paying attention. Over the last ten years (going back to ~2006-2008), impacts began to become apparent to local environmental groups and local businesses that depend on clean, salt-free groundwater. Environmental groups and other organizations forced the issue by communicating concerns about the salt build-up in the aquifer first to regulators and then to lawmakers. In the face of the regulatory realization that the salt was increasing with no alleviation in sight, regulators finally woke up. State, local and regional regulators began investigations and required changes that could have led to decreasing the salty discharges. But then came the state elections in 2010 that brought a change to environmental regulation at the state and regional levels. Since then, our regulatory safety net has broken down. Budgets were cut, layoffs were forced and institutional knowledge was lost. FPL’s political contributions rose and huge investments were made to potentially build two more nuclear reactors at Turkey Point.
Despite the state of Florida’s about-face on the regulations, Miami-Dade County picked up the baton and began to lead the way locally in making sure that at least some changes were made to decrease the discharges that flowed west into the aquifer. However, we believe that even Miami-Dade’s efforts do nothing to address the aging technology, the antiquated cooling canal system, which is the source of the pollution. The Bay still absorbs as much salt and other chemicals as it ever did since the cooling canals were built. Currently, nothing is helping the marine nursery ground in Biscayne Bay, an Outstanding Florida Water.
In our assessment, because the regulatory emphasis has diminished, the only part of government that is working for the people and the environment is the judicial branch. Looking at the reality of our current political landscape, we believed the only way to force needed changes, to compel implementation of new technology and to stop the discharges, was to file a lawsuit in hopes that a Court would do what our regulators won’t.
A migration of contaminants in air or water is commonly referred to as a “plume.” This plume in south Miami-Dade, emanating from the leaking cooling canals, has been documented more than 4 miles west and northwest in the aquifer. With the 2010 regulatory reversal at the state level, the data has stopped coming in that would have likely shown the extent to the east in the Bay. Thankfully in more recent years Miami-Dade has kept the pressure on and required FPL to file eastern data. We have learned that much of the plume to the east has discharged into the Bay through the cuts in deep water barge canals dug by FPL many years ago, to allow for the import of fuels. In addition to the barge canal cuts, there are also natural upwellings on the Bay floor. Natural upwellings have also been thought to be locations where, historically, sailors and fisherman would collect fresh water. Over time and with more consumptive uses of water on the mainland, the force of the flow or upwellings of clean freshwater have faded. While the flow of fresh clean water may have faded, a lower pressure flow has been replaced with cooling canal water that has leaked downward and then to the east to “upwell” through these locations. We can see the upwellings of cooling canal water into the Bay during high rain events and tidal cycles daily. Again, due to state regulators turning a blind eye, it is only because of the CWA lawsuit and the tenacious environmental groups encouraging Miami-Dade to continue engaging that the eastern conditions are starting to be realized. But more work must be done to determine the extent of the plume in Biscayne Bay.
4. What are the effects of the discharges into Biscayne Bay?
Like a lot of contaminants, the cooling canal discharges are somewhat invisible to the naked eye. Thus, one may think this entire area is pristine and a haven for wildlife because the color of the water is still so beautiful. However, over time the ecosystem beneath the water surface has degraded. Seagrasses have grown larger due to increased nutrient inputs and fish species diversity and abundance has decreased due to salinity increases. Scientists at the University of Miami have documented these observations. Also, longtime fisherman from this area have confirmed the same findings – they can see the differences in the types of fish they catch and in the smaller quantities and sizes of fish they catch and the lack of birds they see compared to years past.
The nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus – the same concerns for the sugar cane filed runoffs) coming out of the cooling canals cause not only increased seagrass size but algal blooms. It is well documented that hyper-salinity negatively impacts estuarine productivity and diversity generally. As we have begun to pay more attention to the Bay, we have seen those algal blooms persist for longer periods of time. It is a common scientific finding that ammonia causes fish kills. Ammonia is discharged into the cooling canals and the cooling canals freely leak in every direction. We are concerned fish kills in this area could occur or may have occurred but with no regulatory presence to document it. Thus, the effects are slow and not as obvious as were with the direct discharges. But over time, the results will be the same. We are seeing the diminishing of the estuary.
The good news is we have a feasible solution to this problem. In fact, the environmental community has been suggesting it since July of 2012. We must end the use of the failing, antiquated cooling canals. This circa 1960s cooling system experiment is the only one of its kind for good reason. It leaks contaminants into the aquifer, a National Park and Outstanding Florida Water causing slow adverse impacts to the fresh water and estuarine resources. It may have been a better system than direct discharges of hot water into the Bay 45 years ago, but it is simply not ever used today. It is imperative that we push FPL to do what is in the public’s best interest and use best available technology now. We believe FPL must be compelled to close the cooling canals and replace that antiquated system with mechanical draft cooling towers at Turkey Point, just like they have proposed for their new nuclear reactors and are already using for their natural gas unit at Turkey Point. With the help of ORCA, we commissioned a third-party study to show this is the best solution.
6. What does it cost to remedy the legacy discharges of contaminants and who will pay for it?
There are different estimates of the costs to actually deal with future cooling systems and to clean up FPL’s legacy contaminants discharged from the Turkey Point cooling canals. FPL estimates the current cleanup plan for the legacy pollution will be $50 million per year for 10 years. We do not know how accurate that estimate is as all of the available science shows their modeling was flawed in the first place and their proposed cleanup plan may even cause further harm to the ecosystem. However, industry practitioners agree that in most cleanup scenarios, the first step should be to stop the source of pollution. The next step is the cleanup. FPL has chosen to skip the most important first step. Our lawsuit contends FPL must first close the cooling canals and replace them with best available technology, removing the interactions from the aquifer and Biscayne Bay completely. We fully appreciate the necessity that FPL must have a constant and reliable supply of water to operate Turkey Point. A source of water for the proposed new reactors using cooling towers was already proposed and agreed to by FPL – they would use reuse water from Miami-Dade County. Our expert-commissioned report shows that the technology to best cool the units should be mechanical draft cooling towers with an estimated capital cost range of $220 to $310 million.
We recognize that the proposed costs are significant and that transitioning FPL’s budget is complicated. We believe the ratepayers should not have to shoulder the complete burden in part because FPL chose to pursue a flawed cleanup plan and because FPL’s recent uprate of Turkey Point’s reactors (increasing the electrical generation capacity) exacerbated the heated discharge water in the cooling canals. Instead, costs should come out of company profits. FPL’s shareholders have earned returns, between 8-10% over the years, regardless of the Great Recession of the mid-2000s. They stand to earn 11.5% in 2017 while the Turkey Point plant continues to operate the same antiquated cooling canals that have been leaking pollution for over forty years. FPL has financially benefitted for doing nothing to fix the problem; it is time they paid their fair share to clean it up.
7. How do Turkey Point’s water issues intersect with Everglades Restoration?
If you ask any Everglades advocate “Water Quantity, Quality and Timing” are the key issues for Everglades Restoration success. In trying to have accurate quantities in this equation, we focus on how much water our largest users consume in order to strike the most effective balances. For example, we looked at the quantities of agriculture, industrial and utilities’ consumption of water and how we could balance those volumes with the volumes needed for restoration. But after the math was finalized over the years, we were surprised to learn that in South Florida the quantities of water consumption by power plants was not included because power plants are not required to obtain consumptive use permits. The consequences of the exclusion of one of the state’s largest water use sectors are unknown, but could be staggering.
To give you an idea of the potential magnitude of the math discrepancy because of power plants not having consumptive water use permits, in 2014 the South Florida Water Management District reported that electrical power plants’ percentage of water consumption was only 1% of the rest of the area’s water use. Compare that percentage with the national percentage for consumptive water use from power plants of 42%.
If we are truly looking to improve the Everglades Ecosystem and have more clean water available to send south, we must take a hard look at the water being consumed for energy production and how an actual quantity affects Everglades Restoration. If we continue the same regulatory course and turn a blind eye to the impacts by the influential fossil and nuclear power industry, Everglades Restoration may not truly be realized, except on paper.
Furthermore, Everglades restoration projects in the area, such as Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands, seek to lower salinity in the near-shore areas of south Miami-Dade to return the area to a more productive estuary. However, the multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands project is next to the Turkey Point plant and its cooling canals where massive quantities of salty, polluted water are leaking. Coastal Wetlands restoration may be a great project for Everglades Restoration, but will it ever truly be effective as long as the cooling canals are allowed to operate?
8. What can I do as a resident and or member of Ocean Reef Club? Who can I contact?
As an Ocean Reef member or resident, you are affected by the decisions made at Turkey Point. Not only do you depend on the threatened water supply being protected, you also undoubtedly appreciate and use the Bay waters that are being slowly polluted and its wildlife diminished.
You can contact your County Commissioners, your state legislators and South Florida Water Management District Governing Board members and ask them to take these environmental issues seriously. Ask them to require FPL to stop the pollution by closing the antiquated cooling canals, clean up its pollution from the aquifer and waters of the state, and install the best available cooling technology—cooling towers, like most other power plants operating in the 21st century.
For more information please contact Laura Reynolds, SACE consultant, at [email protected] or 786-543-1926. Access an extensive document prepared by Bonnie Rippingille Schoedinger, “The Federal Lawsuit Against Florida Power and Light for Violations of the Clean Water Act at the Turkey Point Nuclear Facility: A Position Paper and Summary of the History, the Legal Issues, Evidence of Violations and Proposed Solutions,” here. Contact Bonnie Rippingille Schoedinger an Ocean Reef Member and Resident at [email protected] or 305-367-2665.