LLW in the News: Evidence of salt plume under Turkey Point nuclear plant goes back years

The Miami Herald

April 21, 2016

By Jenny Staletovich


In the wake of revelations last month that its aging cooling canals at Turkey Point were leaking into Biscayne Bay, Florida Power & Light rushed to do damage control: company leadership went on the defensive, insisting they were acting responsibly and, in a full page ad, blaming “misinformation” for fanning unfounded fears.

“We’re not punting on this at all,” president and CEO Eric Silagy told the Miami Herald editorial board earlier this month as he laid out a list of on-going fixes.

“If this company has given that impression, that’s my fault,” he said. “What is frustrating a little bit is we’ve worked really hard over the decades to do the right thing.”

But critics contend the powerful utility worked even harder at delay tactics in the face of mounting evidence that its compromised canal system had produced an underground plume of saltwater threatening nearby drinking supplies and contaminating Biscayne Bay.

Records show FPL had been warned for years about problems and even conducted its own research in 2010 that concluded its key fix — adding millions of gallons of brackish water to freshen the super salty canals — would likely make the plume worse. After overheated canals forced the plant’s two reactors to partially power down in 2014, the utility pushed state regulators and water managers repeatedly to add more water, solutions that would allow it to continue operating under Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits but potentially increase the extent and speed of saltwater seepage from the unlined canals.

At the time, the company was still publicly insisting its canals were “definitely a closed system” not impacting any other source of water.

The end result, say environmentalists and others who pushed FPL to move faster over the years, are patchwork fixes and shortsighted solutions they say have failed to deal with broader problems caused by the 44-year-old canals.

“They’re band-aids,” said Steve Torcise, whose family has operated a rock mine just west of the canals for 90 years and earlier this year won a legal fight demanding the state overhaul a management plan that allowed FPL to add more water without fully addressing the impact on the plume. An administrative judge in February faulted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for being too weak and not citing FPL.

Despite the criticism, the DEP on Thursday approved the plan, dismissing many of the judge’s findings. In a 28-page decision, DEP Secretary Jon Steverson wrote the judge “inappropriately invaded the exclusive province” of the state’s ability to regulate the utility. The city of Miami, which had joined the lawsuit with Torcise, plans to appeal.

“We will be pursuing all available appellate remedies to challenge this ruling,’’ said deputy city attorney Barnaby Min.

In the meantime, the salt plume continues to grow. According to the DEP’s own 2014 management plan, it has advanced at a rate of 525 to 660 feet per year with up to 600,000 pounds of salt escaping daily from the canals. That’s pure salt, not salty water.

“FPL definitely should have shared that they were working on a solution, instead of fighting us in court,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who pressed for information from additional monitoring wells that this year confirmed the presence of tritium, a radioactive isotope used to trace cooling canal water, in Biscayne Bay.

“Their first order of business has to be to do no harm to our community and to our environment,” she said. “They want to be known as being good stewards, so it’s especially incumbent upon them to set the example.”

This month, County Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district covers the canals, asked the Environmental Protection Agency to weigh in, joining Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who in March requested an investigation. In a letter to Rodriguez this week, EPA regional administrator Heather McTeer Toney said the agency has been meeting with county, state and FPL officials to collect information. The agency has already made one visit to the canals and plans to before the end of the month, a spokeswoman said.

Worsening conditions have also caught the attention of Monroe County, which operates its only wellfield west of the canals. The county, which this week passed a resolution raising concerns, is considering buying land further west to relocate its well field as well as build an additional reverse osmosis plant in Key West, an expensive option that can make salt water fit for human consumption.

“The cooling canals have been on our radar screen as long as I’ve been here,” said Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority deputy director Tom Walker. “We literally have a line we watch.”

How FPL got to this point is a complex path of regulatory decisions and company expansion, complicated by the singular design of the cooling canals. Turkey Point is the only nuclear power plant in the country that uses the radiator-like cooling system spanning 5,900 acres. It also sits atop the Biscayne aquifer, a pitted layer of coral rock that looks more like a hardened sponge than solid ground.

In 1972, when the canals were created — a compromise FPL says it was forced to accept after federal environmental regulators sued in court to stop the plant from dumping cooling water directly into the bay — it was understood canals in such porous geology would leak. So the design included a critical feature: a straight, deep canal, called an interceptor ditch, to stop saltwater piling up under the canals from migrating west.

The interceptor ditch was important because South Florida’s drinking water supply also sits just below the surface in the Biscayne aquifer. Canals dredged in the 1940s to drain the Everglades had caused the salt front to migrate inland. But over the years water managers installed hundreds of gates and other controls to stop the migration — and in some cases, even reverse it.

But by the 1980s, there already was an indication that Turkey Point’s ditch wasn’t effective, with the underground salt front moving just west of what was suppose to act as a barrier.

Under all five management plans for Turkey Point drawn up by the Florida environmental regulators and water managers over the decades, FPL has been under orders to maintain the quality of surrounding groundwater. A network of monitoring wells was dug to keep watch.

Over the years, the number of wells dwindled, falling to just four by 1983. If state regulators were watching them, they weren’t doing it very closely, said consulting engineer Ed SwakonTorcise hired him to investigate the plume after plans to expand a rock mine near Homestead were nearly derailed when environmental regulators wondered whether mining would pull the saltwater front inland.

In 2007, Swakon went to the South Florida Water Management District, the regulatory agency keeping tabs on salt water intrusion, and asked for old records. To his surprise, Swakon found salinity in groundwater spreading and spiking. By 2001 and 2002, readings showed the front — water with higher salt concentrations than in Biscayne Bay — had reached Southwest 137th Avenue about three miles to the west.

“The way the reports were written, they never really did a long term history of the data. They only [compared] quarter to quarter and there was very little difference,” he said. “But if you really plotted it, and somebody had taken the time, they would have seen each successive quarter got a little worse and a little worse.”

Swakon said he and Torcise met with FPL officials to report their findings, but got no response. An FPL spokesman later called them “unfounded allegations.” At the time, the utility was in the midst of hammering out a new administrative order required by a $3 billion uprating project of Turkey Point’s two nuclear reactors that FPL said it needed to keep up with increasing demand: as much as 40 percent of the power the county needed was being imported, FPL officials said in a 2007 zoning meeting.

The uprate would increase power output by 15 percent but also raise temperatures in the cooling canals, with the effect of increasing evaporation and salt concentrations. FPL officials planned to offset additional heat going into the canals by shutting down the plant’s two oldest fossil fuel burning units. The move was expected to cap the heat increase to only by 2.5 degrees — an impact FPL insisted would not effect the operation of the canals.

But modeling done by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2009 found that as the canals grew hotter and saltier, they could potentially shoot “saline fingers” to the bottom of the 98-foot thick aquifer —sometimes as fast as a few days. The extra salty water could then spread laterally, expanding the plume.

Water managers, whose approval was key to the uprating moving forward, wanted to know if the interceptor ditch was still an effective barrier. At the time, FPL officials assured them it was.

Engineers who designed the ditch weren’t so confident. According to a report compiled this year by University of Miami hydrologist David Chin for Miami-Dade County, the engineers worried as early as 1971 that saltwater could migrate inland even if the ditch was properly operated. Chin also found the ditch only blocks shallow saltwater from spreading — and the canal system was pushing it deeper into the Biscayne aquifer.

Faced with increased scrutiny, FPL hired its own engineers to look for remedies, according to an in-house study Torcise obtained in his recent lawsuit. Completed in August 2011, the study found that canal water had moved 3.5 miles west of the plant and was spreading at a relatively brisk pace of 500 feet a year. In response to a question, an FPL spokesman this week revised that figure, saying the rate has since slowed to just over 120 feet a year.

FPL’s engineers offered five alternatives, including building massive slurry walls underground to stop water from moving at a cost of $134.4 million. But the cheapest and preferable alternative, the engineers said, was adding fresher water from the Floridan aquifer.

“The alternative is attractive because it effectively removes the source of the hypersaline water,” engineers wrote. But a “potentially negative aspect” of the remedy, they said, was it did nothing to stop the westward movement of saltwater. Nor did the other four.

Despite the findings, FPL officials in 2010 and 2011 continued to work with water managers on an elaborate monitoring plan that also for the first time included checking for tritium, a radioactive isotope found in canal water that could be used as a tracer. In 2011, as part of their effort to confirm tritium as the best tracer, district hydrologists John Janzen and Steven Krupa found that canal water was in wells at Southwest 137th Avenue. Tritium was also found in surface water just east of the canals and at the mouth of the Card Sound Canal. To get a better read, the hydrologists recommended installing a better network of wells.

But in its annual post-uprate report in October 2012, FPL continued to debate the 2009 USGS findings of the expanding plume, arguing that the wells used by the agency might not be connected or in the same zone because of the “complex geology of the area.” Still, the utility agreed a plume existed and offered solutions.

FPL managers now say the location of the saltwater plume wasn’t in dispute — just the exact cause of it.

“We always said we were part of it, but there’s other factors,” including lowering the water table seasonally for nearby farmers, senior project director Steve Scroggs said this week. “It’s easy to say it’s all FPL. It’s not.”

Meanwhile, the boundaries of the tritium were growing clearer. A Miami-Dade County contour map of samples in 2011 and 2013 show tritium detected well beyond cooling canal borders. County officials had been keeping an eye on the wells, but had no authority without a water quality violation, said Lee Hefty, director of the Division of Environmental Resources Management. Instead, he said, they pushed for the district to act.

In April 2013, the Water Management District finally officially notified FPL that the canals were in violation. The utility responded by asking to add 14 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan aquifer, which it said would reverse the plume, a prediction that contradicts the earlier 2010 report. But district hydro-geologist Jeff Giddings found FPL used faulty modeling. While adding Floridan water reduced salinity in the canals, it did nothing to reduce the underground plume.

District consultant William Nuttle also concluded more water would just increase seepage and warned that FPL failed to account for local conditions including a major change on the horizon: sea rise. A foot rise, now predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 2030, would put the shoreline west of the canals.

As the agencies tried to hammer out a deal, temperatures in the canal spiked in the summer of 2014, prompting the utility to scramble for solutions, including getting operating limits raised to 104 degrees, the highest in the country, and an emergency permit to pump up to 100 million gallons of water a day from a nearby drainage canal. The utility also began pumping water from unregulated marine wells.

Over the next year, Miami-Dade County officials estimate that FPL pumped more than 12 billion gallons of water into the canals. Half that came from the marine wells with a quarter coming from the nearby L-31e canal. Rain supplied just 37 percent, even though company officials say rain remains the primary source of water to address increasing evaporation with higher temperatures.

What caused the spike remains in dispute. Chin, whose final report is due next month, concluded that the uprating project caused it. FPL blames a local drought. In July 2014, FPL environmental services director Matt Raffenberg said rainfall over the canals amounted to just 5.29 inches and only 20 inches in all of 2013.

“If it’s such an important facility, you would expect its design would not be based on the weather,” Hefty said. “It sounds like a funny thing to say, but really it’s a fairly significant facility. I would have expected their design engineers would have contemplated how that facility would operate without rain.”

FPL’s Scroggs also said that when the canals were briefly shut down, sediment built up in the northwest corner, which slowed flowed, turned the water browner and hotter, and caused an algae bloom to spread. Sediment had not been removed from the canals since 1990s, Scroggs said, because it is expensive.

When the state finally issued a new administrative order late in 2015, allowing FPL to pump more water into the canals to lower salinity and “abate” the plume without fully spelling out how, Torcise, environmentalists, neighboring cities and the county sued. Last month, a Tallahassee administrative judge ordered the state to redo the plan after it failed to cite FPL for a specific violation.

On Thursday, DEP chief Steverson wrote that the order in fact contained remedies which were not suitable for judicial review and that choosing to fix the problem, rather than penalize FPL, was up to the department.

The state’s decision, South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard said, comes as no surprise given the utility’s political connections.

“I suspect there’s incentive enough for DEP to disrespect the administrative law judge and the public welfare to avoid holding FPL responsible for the environmental damage they’ve done.”

On May 15, FPL is also due to submit a clean-up plan to the county, which pulled out of the suit and hammered out its own deal. The plan calls for FPL to install extraction wells to pump the extra salty water deep into the boulder zone, which environmentalists worry won’t do enough to address the plume. To address high levels of ammonia and phosphorus leaking into the bay, FPL also dug a 30-foot deep well east of the canals, which it did without consulting the county environmental staff, prompting another letter from Hefty to better spell out plans.

FPL now says the cooling canals are back under control, that salinity is a third lower than last summer and, now that they’ve cleared sediment and have permission to add water from the deeper brackish Floridan aquifer, they expect the canals to work properly. Efforts to address the plume was delayed not by them, Scroggs said, but by a complicated bureaucratic system.

“For years people knew about this and everybody talked about what we would do. Well, we finally broke through that,” he said. “I’m living everyday with the delays and the questions and the go back and do this and the back and forth. It’s an incredibly complex process with multiple people and multiple interests. But at the end of the day, we’ve moved to a place where we’re taking action.