FPL Wants to Charge $200 Million to Fix Water Pollution It Ignored for Years, Environmentalists Say

Florida Power & Light made $1.7 billion in profit in 2016. A reasonable person might assume a company with that much extra cash would quickly be able to use that money to fix, say, leaks in one of its power plants that are polluting the largest source of drinking water in South Florida. But instead of shouldering the cost of fixing its leaking cooling canals at Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, FPL is asking state regulators for permission to pass that bill — a reported $200 million — onto consumers.

In a legal brief filed yesterday, the company's loudest critic, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), demanded that FPL pay for the environmental recovery without levying what is basically a tax on its customers.

In fact, SACE argued in the filing to the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), the state body tasked with regulating FPL, that the power company has been misleading regulators and state officials for years about the malfunctioning canals seeping saltwater pollution into the Biscayne Aquifer. FPL simply wants to charge customers in order to get away with years of corporate and environmental neglect, they argue.

"FPL’s imprudent and negligent operation of the CCS [cooling-canal system] violated drinking water standards," SACE writes. "FPL customers should not have to pay for FPL’s legacy of negligence and deception."

FPL responded to the filing by painting SACE as an environmental extremist group, pointing to the fact that SACE's lead attorney, George Cavros, retracted a statement earlier this month claiming FPL and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were conspiring to withhold information from the public.

"Today, yet again, SACE is cooking up outlandish theories that are designed to mislead the public and regulators," FPL spokesperson Bianca Cruz said. "Given that SACE recently filed a highly inflammatory motion in this case that was proven to be false and withdrawn in less than 24 hours, SACE has absolutely zero credibility not only in this case, but on energy issues in general."

SACE has long been among the loudest critics of the nuclear industry and FPL. The group is also battling regulators to stop FPL from building two new nuclear reactors at Turkey Point and sounded the alarm last year after FPL proposed to inject low-level radioactive waste in an area some scientists warned could leak into drinking-water sources. (FPL won that fight earlier this year.)

But SACE isn't the only group opposed to the proposed rate hike: The Florida PSC's Office of Public Counsel, a state group that argues on behalf of consumers, also opposes the $200 million charge for many of the same reasons. That group has argued that FPL's "imprudent management decisions" cause the plume, a charge the company has denied in legal filings.

In SACE's new documents, the environmentalists claim FPL "knew or should have known in 1978, or by 1992 at the latest," that the cooling canals were leaking. The canals are a long, snaking system of pipes used to cool nuclear wastewater, and they're unique to Turkey Point — the system isn't used at any other nuclear site in the world. The canals have been spewing saltwater for years, but state regulators gave FPL an ultimatum only in June 2016. FPL now has ten years to clean up the plume. Environmentalists say the state's demands still don't go far enough.

SACE noted that FPL consultants found in 1978, 1990, and 1992 that saltwater was migrating westward from the plant and toward the aquifer. An FPL witness, Mike Sole, even admitted in 2009 that the plume "may have a problem" and was "causing or contributing to impairment of adjacent waters," but SACE says nothing was done to stop the leak from getting worse until the state intervened in 2013. (Sole was the Department of Environmental Protection secretary at the time, but in 2010 he left that position to take a job overseeing FPL's lobbying wing.)

SACE also says FPL failed to send the South Florida Water Management District any monitoring reports from 2005 through 2007, and when the company finally sent the backlog of data in 2008, it neglected to analyze whether a dam built to stop saltwater leakage was working.

The PSC is now tasked with deciding whether FPL got into this mess by accident or through negligence. If the PSC determines that FPL incurred these latest remediation costs "prudently" (that is, if the salt plume grew even though FPL acted responsibly), state law says the company can charge customers for the cleanup cost. If not, FPL is on the hook.

In a parallel court filing yesterday, FPL argued it's been handling the saltwater plume correctly for decades and claimed the South Florida Water Management District would have said something years ago if it noticed the company was polluting local waterways. FPL argued that its critics are "asking this Commission to override the judgment of an agency that has the expertise and mandate to protect Florida’s water resources."

But SACE, however, isn't buying that claim.

"The most troubling of FPL’s imprudent actions is that it misled regulators," SACE wrote.

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