Add Monroe County to the growing number of challengers to a proposed pollution permit renewal for Florida Power and Light’s generating units at Turkey Point Nuclear Plant on Biscayne Bay in Miami-Dade County.

Approval of operating licenses could further jeopardize the Florida Keys drinking water even more, local officials say. 

Monroe County commissioners were unanimous in the decision during a June 4 special meeting to join the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s petition for an administrative hearing, which challenges Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s notice of intent to issue a new pollution permit for the continued operation of two units. Renewal of operating licenses for units three and four at the plant, which are the nuclear pressurized water reactors, would allow an additional 20 years of operation beyond the current licensed operation periods. 

If renewed, unit three’s operating license would expire at midnight on July 19, 2052, while unit four would expire at midnight on April 10, 2053. The nuclear power units have operated since 1972. 

Last December, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved FPL’s application for an additional 20 years of operation. It’s the first time NRC has issued renewed licenses authorizing reactor operation from 60 to 80 years. Last month, DEP issued a notice of intent to issue the permit unless a petition for an administrative hearing is filed. 

In recent talks with FKAA, County Attorney Bob Shillinger said the county was asked to intervene in the authority’s challenge to the permit FPL must obtain from DEP. Several discussions were had in years past regarding concerns over the cooling canal system and continued westward movement of hypersaline water toward wells that supply drinking water to the Keys. 

Failure to halt the movement westward could lead to contamination of the water supply, while eastern movement will affect natural resources, officials say. 

“The environmental concerns are broader than just the well fields; it involves Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay,” Shillinger said. “It would be a more comprehensive approach to challenging the permit if the county were involved.”

The cooling canals are about 2 miles wide by 5 miles long, or roughly 5,900 acres. Turkey Point nuclear units use this system like a radiator, discharging heated condenser water at one end and withdrawing cooled water at the other end for reuse. The discharge canal receives heated water from the plant and distributes flow into 32 feed canals. 

Water in the feeder canals flows south into a single collector canal that distributes water to seven return canals. Water in the return canals flows north to the intakes. Flows attributable to nuclear units three and four amount to around 1.3 million gallons per minute, according to the applicant’s environmental report to NRC. 

Cooling canals receive inflow and outflow from the Biscayne Aquifer because of the exceptional porosity of the underlying rock, according to the environmental report. Turkey Point does not directly discharge to fresh or marine surface waters; however, because the canals are not lined, groundwater does interact with water in the canals. 

FPL is currently under an enforcement action via DEP consent order and Miami-Dade County consent agreement to retract the hypersaline plume and prevent continued pollution. However, there is no evidence that the efforts have been or will be successful under that consent order, FKAA officials said. 

“The existing consent order requires FPL to clean up pollution it has caused to water quality in the Biscayne Aquifer and in Biscayne Bay,” said Tom Walker, FKAA executive director. “There is no reason to issue a permit to discharge industrial wastewater into the system until FPL has complied with the order.”

Monroe County and FKAA are retaining the firm of Lewis, Longman & Walker in the matter. Combined, legal costs to the county and the authority could be from $100,000 to $500,000. 

Seepage from the cooling canals also jeopardizes clean water and the 100-plus fishing guides in the Upper Keys area who depend on a healthy ecosystem for their livelihood. Laura Reynolds, representative for the Florida Keys Fishing Association, said the permit as written does not provide reasonable assurances that the beneficial uses of the bay, Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary and other places affected by the seepage from the cooling canals are protected.

“The fishing guides have decided to join the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority in also filing a petition so that we can make sure that the beneficial use of the bayside equation is there,” she said. 

A South Florida nonprofit, Miami Waterkeeper, is also involved in a challenge to the operating license extension. With a focus on clean water, habitat protection and sea level rise resiliency, Executive Director Rachel Silverstein said the proposed license extension envisions continued operation of the cooling canals despite obvious issues of contamination of the surrounding environment and groundwater. It also ignores flood projections from sea level rise that predict the area of the cooling canal to be underwater by 2040. 

“It’s extremely appropriate and necessary for Monroe County to step in at this point and to protect their drinking water supply. This is the utmost importance to the community,” she said. “This permit, one of the major issues we have with it is that it seems too far from stopping the movement of the plume. It actually allows seepage from the cooling canal system, particularly into the surface waters. It was our hope that a permit would seek to stop that.”

Commissioners were in consensus with the speakers. 

“They’re going to push, push, and I know it’s expensive to push back, but we may end up with no drinking water and that is going to be one hell of a mess because we have nowhere else to go,” said commissioner Sylvia Murphy. 

Mayor Heather Carruthers said FPL is aware of salt water intrusion issues like the saltwater plume that has leaked from the plant into the Biscayne Aquifer. As for a remediation plan, she said it hasn’t been effective so far. 

“We need assurance that the saltwater plume will not compromise our drinking water and wells,” Carruthers said. “This will be a great impact on our residents and our community is highly supportive of making sure we continue to have clean drinking water.”

Commissioner Craig Cates said he supports challenging the permit. 

“I want to stand side-by-side with the aqueduct authority to make sure this doesn’t happen,” he said. 

More than 60 organizations making up the Everglades Coalition say the excess salt concentrated in the plume and the excessive water use nuclear power generation requires are in conflict with Everglades restoration efforts underway in adjacent wetlands called the ”model lands basin.” The addition of excess nutrients into Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park could kill seagrass and allow it to be displaced by fast-growing noxious seaweed, as well as stimulate algal growth, which could lead to persistent algal blooms and could affect wildlife.

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