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FPL Faces Lawsuit Over Contamination

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Power & Light
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Conservation groups plan to sue Florida Power & Light after the discovery of a radioactive isotope in Biscayne Bay linked to a nuclear power plant in southeast Miami-Dade County.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Tropical Audubon Society on Tuesday issued a 60-day notice of a pending federal lawsuit against the Juno Beach-based power giant.

The notice calls on state and federal regulators to take action against FPL under the Clean Water Act because of discharges going into ground water. If regulators do not take action within the 60-day notice period, the groups will sue for civil penalties and ask for an injunction against continued violations.

The lawsuit comes in reaction to the release of a study March 7 by Miami-Dade County that indicated tritium --- a radioactive isotope of hydrogen --- has leaked through groundwater from the FPL Turkey Point plant's cooling canals toward Biscayne National Park and the Biscayne aquifer.

"Now we have undeniable evidence, a discernible fingerprint, that contamination, pollution from the cooling canals at that Turkey Point power complex, where there are two operating nuclear reactors and two other operating fossil fuel facilities, is actually getting into and having a direct connection with the surface water in Biscayne Bay," Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith said during a conference call with reporters.

The study, conducted by the University of Miami and the county Department of Environmental Resources Management, drew headlines for finding the level of radioactive tritium 215 times the amount found in normal ocean water.

FPL spokesman Rob Gould said that while utility officials continue to work with Miami-Dade County to address conditions of the 4-decade-old canals, the claims by conservation and anti-nuclear energy groups have been blown "out of proportion."

"The elevated levels of tritium are still about 78 percent less than what the EPA sets as its standard for tritium in drinking water," Gould said.

Gould added that FPL expects to meet with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the cooling canals.

Gould's comment echoed a March 15 Miami Herald editorial from FPL President Eric Silagy in which he said the energy giant is working with federal, state and local authorities to ensure all safety and environmental issues are addressed, that there will be no "lasting adverse impact" on the bay and that there "is absolutely no adverse impact to drinking water, safety or public health."

Smith, however, said FPL has "downplayed the significance of this incident."

A release by the conservation groups accompanying their notice also criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection for a "lack of action" by failing to issue warnings or fines against FPL "despite years of data proving that FPL has violated its operating permits."

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller disagreed with Smith's assessment.

"The department continues to work to identify solutions to ensure public health and safety and protection of the environment," Miller said in an email. "As part of this effort, the department has taken a number of actions to ensure FPL addresses salinity in their cooling canal system, including issuing an administrative order and a separate siting modification last year."

In February, Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter directed the department to rescind or amend a December 2014 order backing FPL's plans to fix the cooling canals. Canter determined that the cooling canals were a major source of an underground plume spreading west of the plant.

Gould acknowledged that the plume contained traces of tritium, but the plume remains four to five miles from the aquifer.

He also said that Canter should have considered the existing consent agreement FPL has with Miami-Dade County to repair the canals, which includes plans to seal off cuts that have allowed pollutants to spread.

"We do believe it's making progress," Gould said.