TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Rejecting arguments about threats to Monroe County's water supply and Biscayne Bay, an administrative law judge has ruled the state should renew a permit for a massive canal system at a Florida Power & Light plant in Miami-Dade County.
Judge Cathy Sellers on Friday issued a 125-page recommended order backing a decision by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to renew the permit for FPL's Turkey Point site.
The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which supplies drinking water to the Keys, and the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association challenged the permit renewal and were joined by Monroe County.
In part, the case focused on a wellfield that the authority operates about 9.5 miles west of the canal system to draw water from the Biscayne Aquifer and supply water to the Keys. The challenge contended that continued operation of the canal system would lead to increased salinity in groundwater that would threaten the drinking-water supply in the future.
But Sellers wrote that FPL has taken steps, including entering a 2016 agreement with the Department of Environmental, that have halted what she described as a "hypersaline plume" from the Turkey Point site. She also pointed to the role of the canal system in cooling heated water from two nuclear-generating units at Turkey Point.
"Issuance of the renewal permit for the CCS (cooling canal system) is in the public interest," Sellers wrote. "As discussed … the Turkey Point electrical generating facility, and, specifically, Units 3 and 4 (the nuclear units), are an essential source of electricity for South Florida. Thus, (a section of state law) provides authority for issuance of the renewal permit."
Sellers also disputed that the renewal of the permit could hurt the fishery or other natural resources in Biscayne Bay, which is east of the power plant. She wrote that "the evidence did not demonstrate significant, if any, seepage from the CCS into Biscayne Bay, and the areas of the bay near the CCS are meeting the applicable water quality standards."
The 5,900-acre canal system has operated since 1973 after FPL and the federal government reached an agreement to prevent direct discharges of heated power-plant cooling water into Biscayne Bay. Sellers likened the canal system to a "radiator," with heated cooling water circulating through the system and ultimately being reused as cooling water for the nuclear reactors.
The canal system is unlined and includes an average of 4.5 billion gallons of water, which also includes water from other sources, Sellers wrote.
But FPL and state and local officials have grappled with problems of high-salinity water moving west from the site, resulting in the 2016 agreement, known as a consent order. Among other things, FPL was required to install wells to withdraw hypersaline water and inject it deep underground, Sellers wrote.
The Department of Environmental Protection in April 2020 published a notice of intent to issue a permit for the continued operation of the canal system, drawing the legal challenges.
In a proposed recommended order filed last year, attorneys for the challengers disputed that renewal of the permit was in the public interest.
"It is not in the public interest to perpetuate an adverse impact to a sole-source aquifer relied on by Monroe County and others, in the absence of evidence that no other possible means exists for FPL to continue operations," the document said. "Moreover, testimony presented indicates that CCS discharges to the bay have caused permanent changes to the bay's flora and fauna, harming FKFGA (Florida Keys Fishing Guide Association) members' ability to use the resource and changing their fishing patterns."
But FPL attorneys, in a proposed recommended order last year, disputed such arguments.
"Petitioners (the challengers) have presented no evidence that ongoing discharges to groundwater from the CCS constitute a nuisance," the document said. "Petitioners have not presented evidence that any specific person's use of groundwater will be affected by continued operation of the CCS. As discussed … operation of the CCS is not currently affecting the FKAA (Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority) wellfields and will not affect those wellfields for decades, if at all."
Under administrative law, Sellers' recommended order will go to the Department of Environmental Protection for final action.
(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.)
for more features.