Environmental Groups Sue FPL Over Turkey Point Pollution in Biscayne Bay

In March, state regulators announced that the Turkey Point nuclear power plant had been leaking dangerous saltwater into the Biscayne Bay, and possibly the Biscayne Aquifer, the county's largest source of drinking water, leaving local politicians aghast. 

But environmentalists say outrage isn't enough when dealing with the powerful Florida Power and Light, which runs the plant. That's why two groups have now sued to demand that FPL pay for its share of the cleanup.

"There’s a saying that goes, if you're digging yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging," said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE),  in a telephone conference about the lawsuit. "This is an open industrial sewer, and FPL is just digging itself into a further hole."

The suit, filed in the U.S. Southern District of Florida by SACE and the Tropical Audubon Society, claims FPL has violated numerous sections of the U.S. Clean Water Act, as well as a pollution-abatement contract.

The legal action comes after regulators found more than 200 times the daily level of tritium, a radioactive isotope, in the Biscayne Bay water. Tritium is linked to nuclear power production, which led regulators to point their fingers at the only giant, (literally) smoking gun in the area: Turkey Point, which sits on the bay's shores near Homestead, about 25 miles south of downtown Miami.

While tritium at that amount isn't believed to be dangerous to people, its presence indicates that the plant's cooling canals are leaking. Up until the 1970s, FPL had just been dumping its hot cooling water straight into the bay, until a court order put a stop to all that.

So, FPL built a 5,800-acre, two-miles-wide-by-five-miles-long cooling canal adjacent to the bay. The leak from those canals carries a host of potential environmental problems for sensitive ecosystems

"The cooling canal system is unlined and underlain by porous limestone geology, including the Biscayne Aquifer," the suit says. "The contaminated water in the cooling canal system has for many years discharged, and continues to discharge from the cooling canal system into Biscayne Bay" right from the pipes.

The SACE maintains that Turkey Point discharges 600,000 of "salt and other contaminants" into the Biscayne Aquifer each day.

SACE says the state has allowed FPL to operate on an expired permit for years, despite the fact that there had been signs of pollution emanating from the plant dating back to at least 2010. 

"FPL is going to scream about money," Smith said. "But the reality is that if they continue to fail to clean this up, they're going to spend more and more money doing heroics, and it will ultimately cost more."

The activists also say they felt forced to get involved, since there appeared to be no real advocates fighting against FPL in the Miami area. "On the East Side, there has not been champion," Smith said. "We're going to call it like we see it. This is an open, industrial sewer, and FPL has to stop polluting the bay."

The suit asks the court for a declaratory judgement stating, flatly, that FPL has violated the Clean Water Act and its state permits, and additionally asks the state to force FPL to fix the problem. Friends of the Everglades, another environmental group, also says it plans to join the suit in 60 days.

The environmentalists are also asking the court to fine FPL up to $37,500 a day for each day it's found to have violated the Clean Water Act.

"That seems to be the only thing that FPL responds to," Laura Reynolds, an SACE consultant, said.

An FPL spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Update 5:30 p.m.:  Bianca Cruz, an FPL spokesperson, sent a statement calling the lawsuit a "publicity stunt' and saying FPL is working on environmental solutions. Here's her statement:

While SACE has been focused on politics and publicity stunts, we’ve been working with local and state agencies, scientists and other experts to make real progress on science-driven solutions to improve the long-term health of the canal system and the groundwater. The fact is this is the same lawsuit that SACE announced in March. It’s just another publicity stunt from an anti-utility group with a long history of spreading false information and pursuing wasteful legal action.

SACE’s lawsuit will do absolutely nothing to help the environment. In fact, it will very likely cause delays and increase costs of the environmental improvements by forcing countless hours of depositions and other activity that will divert the time and energy of the scientists and other employees who are currently working on solutions.

As SACE knows, the proper state and local agencies and their qualified experts have been using science and facts to make sure the right action is taken. A responsible environmental advocate would respect that process and not attempt to grab headlines and divert attention from the efforts to solve this. 

Here's a copy of the suit:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.