Environmentalists: FPL's Plan to Fix Miami's Polluted Drinking Water Will Take 60 Years

Courtesy of FPL
Early this year, Florida Power & Light and Miami-Dade County unveiled a joint plan they claimed would finally fix the gigantic plume of saltwater pollution that has leaked from FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station into the Biscayne Aquifer, South Florida's largest source of drinking water. The plume came from the power plant's cooling canals — a technology so archaic that Turkey Point is the only nuclear plant in the world that uses it. But rather than getting rid of the leaky canals, FPL and the county want to dilute and "freshen" the fluid using the county's treated sewage.

FPL says the plan will likely clean up the saltwater plume within five to ten years. But in a press call with reporters today, a hydrologist working with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) — FPL's loudest critic — argued FPL's math is way off. In fact, the environmental group warns that if the county agrees to the plan, drawing back the saltwater plume could take 60 years, if the plume ever goes away at all.

SACE says if its projections are correct, FPL would break a state order requiring the company to clean up the pollution within a decade.

"The county is proposing a half-assed solution for what is a momentous problem threatening drinking water," SACE's executive director, Stephen A. Smith, told reporters today. The county could approve the latest version of the plan at a commission meeting next week, but Smith urged commissioners to "hold firm" and use what leverage they have on FPL to force the company to get rid of the cooling-canal system.

SACE hydrologist William Nuttle, a scientist who has worked with the South Florida Water Management District, argued in a letter sent yesterday to the Miami-Dade County Commission that polluted water will seep into the Biscayne Aquifer at the same time FPL works to pull saltwater out of its canals. By his calculations, that fact will vastly increase the amount of time it will take the company to finally eradicate the drinking-water threat.

"If FPL is really serious about assuring the success of its remediation plan, it will look at discontinuing the operation of the cooling canals," Nuttle wrote in his letter. "Eliminating the seepage that continues to feed the plume would increase the effectiveness of the recovery wells. Instead of recovering a net amount of 21 billion gallons in 10 years, the wells could reduce the volume of the plume by the full 54 billion gallons pumped, more than doubling their effectiveness."

But FPL spokesperson Peter Robbins says FPL is standing firm behind its estimate that its plan would clean up the canals within a decade. FPL blasted SACE as a "political group" with a radical agenda, a claim SACE has repeatedly denied.

"The plan... was developed using the most sophisticated groundwater model ever developed in the region," Robbins says in a statement, noting that local and state officials approved the idea. "This model is informed by expert hydrogeologists using more than 35 million data points that have been collected since 2010. The groundwater model indicates that the recovery well system will work, and it will work within 10 years."

Environmentalists have fought for years to force FPL to scrap the cooling-canal system at Turkey Point, which sits near the coastline in Homestead. Rather than cooling nuclear effluent in more standard towers, Turkey Point sends its waste through a 5,900-acre field of flat pipes.

But records show FPL had known for years the pipes were leaking — environmental groups and the Florida Public Service Commission's Office of Public Counsel, a state body, argue the documents prove FPL dragged its feet for years as the issue worsened. (FPL has repeatedly denied that accusation.) Tests in 2016 also showed the canals were leaking tritium, a nuclear byproduct, into Biscayne Bay.

In 2016, the state ordered FPL to fix the then-two-mile-wide plume within the next ten years. The company believes it can meet that goal by both sucking saltwater out of the plume and pumping it underground and by pushing cleaner, treated sewage through the cooling canals. (Partnering will also save FPL and the county each a good bit of money.) According to the Miami Herald, other environmental groups, including the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, have endorsed the plan because it uses reclaimed sewage water instead of fresh drinking water pulled from underground aquifers.

But SACE has objected to two major parts of the project: For one, the plan requires that Turkey Point remain in operation far longer than FPL had previously proposed, at a time when environmentalists are pushing power suppliers around the globe to move away from nuclear energy, which they say requires more money and environmental resources to produce compared to wind and solar power.

More specific, the plan also lets the cooling canals remain intact, which SACE believes is a mistake. SACE's leaders said they're not opposed to the county working with FPL to help fix the saltwater plume — they're just asking the county to exert the leverage it holds over the company (which made $1.8 billion in net profit in 2017) to force FPL to get rid of the canal system.

"NextEra Energy [FPL's parent company] prides itself on using the best technology around the U.S.," Smith, SACE's director, said today. "But down here, the company runs this open, industrial sewer."
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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.