DEP head rejects nuclear plant canal recommendations criticizing agency<>

By Bruce Ritchie

6:42 p.m. | Apr. 21, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday rejected a judge's recommended order<> criticizing its oversight of the cooling canal system at Florida Power & Light Co.'s nuclear plant near Miami.

In February, Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter blasted the DEP for failing to act on "undisputed evidence" that discharges into the canals had caused saltwater intrusion from the sea to advance further inland, and for failing to craft a legally enforceable cleanup plan. The agency had until May 15 to act on his recommendation to craft a new plan.

But DEP Secretary Jon Steverson on Thursday concluded in a final order<> that Canter had "invaded" the "exclusive province" of the department to choose an enforcement remedy.

"The department's choice to exercise its authority at this time in favor of remediation to protect the public health than in favor of punishment by charges and fines is a matter of enforcement discretion squarely within the department's province," the final order said.

Steverson's final order adopts an administrative order that the department issued back in December 2014. Atlantic Civil Inc. and the city of Miami, both of which had challenged that administrative order, have 30 days to file a lawsuit appealing the decision.

In March, the governor and the Cabinet approved a request<> by Florida Power & Light to pump 14 million gallons from into the Turkey Point plant's cooling canals to dilute their salinity. The company also is planning to install wells to pump the contaminated groundwater out of the Biscayne Aquifer and pump it deeper underground.

Florida Power & Light has discharged cooling water from its two nuclear power-generating units into the 5,900-acre network of cooling canals<> since the 1970s as an alternative to discharging into Biscayne Bay.

In his February recommended order, Canter determined that Florida Power & Light had violated state groundwater standards because the salty water discharged into the canals was seeping into the aquifer. He said the administrative order issued by the department was "vague" and authorized continued violations of water quality standards by the company.

 He said the western migration of a saltwater plume — which Atlantic Civil contends threatens its mining operation nearby — "must be abated to prevent further harm to the waters of the state."

Steverson's final order said the case "raises issues of environmental concerns" and DEP staff "shall consider" the findings Canter issued. But the final order also said the 2014 administrative order is "a reasonable exercise of the department's enforcement discretion" and rejected the recommendation to rescind it.

A department spokeswoman said the administrative order requires Florida Power & Light to develop and implement a salinity management plan and "abate" the westward spread of the saltwater plume in the groundwater from the cooling canals.

Canter had argued that "abate" should mean stop the pollution, rather than reduce it, as the DEP had argued.

In response to the final order, Florida Power & Light spokesman Peter Robbins said, "We will continue to work to protect the long-term health of the cooling canal system and welcome the involvement of FDEP and other agencies."

Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez said in response, "We are reviewing the options that are available and plan to pursue all available remedies to protect the quality of life of the city’s residents."

Atlantic Civil president Steve Torcise Jr., indicated that his family-owned company will appeal the final order. He contends the migrating saltwater plume will force him shut down his limerock mining operation when it reaches his property.

"This ruling is yet another unfortunate example of the Department of Environmental Protection being too closely connected with the very industry it is tasked with regulating and at the expense of the public good," he said. "An independent judge heard evidence and ruled in our favor and against DEP, and now the agency’s secretary has asserted his power to overturn a number of the judge’s decisions."