Radioactive stuff polluting Miami’s Biscayne Bay

If you happen to be on a boat cruising Biscayne Bay one night and the water glows don’t assume you have chanced upon some luminescent sea life. The light might just be coming from a radioactive isotope now contaminating the bay thanks to 100 million of gallons of water discharged every day by Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) Turkey Point nuclear plant.

First, a confession: I have no idea if the nasty radioactive stuff polluting the waters in or close to Biscayne National Park can make the water glow. But now that I have your attention, let’s talk about what I do know that scares me way more than any aquatic light show.

A study released last week found levels of the radioactive isotope tritium in bay water at levels 215 times normal (Miami Herald, March 8, 2016). The study was carried out not by Greenpeace or any other environmental group. The research was made public by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez.

The Herald story goes on to explain that tritium “is typically monitored as a ‘tracer’ of nuclear plant leaks or spills.” Or, in my words, tritium is the canary in the coal mine. It’s a warning of a serious problem. And its presence does not tell us what other radioactive waste might be in the water but it raises the suspicion that there may be other nasty radioactive stuff there. Therefore, it is urgent that government environmental regulators and scientific experts conduct further research to find out.

The levels of the marker found by the study are astonishingly high. The canary would have died long ago. But in general the finding that the water coming out of Turkey Point is not just too hot in degrees Fahrenheit (which we knew) but also too hot radioactively doesn’t come as a surprise. Just two weeks ago “a Tallahassee judge ordered the utility to clean up its cooling canals after concluding that they had caused a massive underground salt water plume to migrate west, threatening a wellfield that supplies drinking water to the Florida Keys.” (Miami Herald)

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Now we are talking about a threat not just to the ecology of the bay and its national park but to human health.

Who is responsible for this mess? At least two different parties are at fault. Evidently, FPL, which is discharging the hot water, has a major responsibility. The company spends millions of dollars on public relations in the form of incessant and expensive television ads touting what a great job it’s doing keeping the cost of electricity down. FPL should invest its money instead to clean up its act rather than polish its image.

Electricity isn’t cheap if it comes at the cost of wreaking havoc with the environment or imperiling human health. Economists and corporations call such costs “externalities.” Jargon like that often hides the bad and the ugly. To cut through the B.S., an externality is when you take your dog into your neighbor’s yard to defecate to prevent the animal from doing it on yours.

The second actor, or non-actor, at fault is the state of Florida. State environmental regulators and their bosses the governor and the legislature for a long time have shown infinite indulgence toward corporations that misbehave, most notably by fouling the environment. Lately, a lot of the bad corporate conduct has revolved around water. The headline to Carl Hiaasen’s March 6, 2016 Miami Herald column reads: “Scott clueless in Lake O’s crisis.” That headline lets the governor off to easily and doesn’t reflect the content of the column.

Hiaasen knows full well that on this issue the governor is as clueless as a hawk is on how to kill a rabbit. Here is some of what he wrote: “Privately, the governor is busy muscling special interests to bankroll his Senate run in 2018. Some of his biggest donors are the worst polluters of Lake O and the Everglades…”

What Hiaasen is denouncing is raw political calculation and collusion between business and government against the common interest, not cluelessness. The result, in Hiassen’s words, is that “Billions of gallons spiked with agricultural waste is being pumped daily from Lake Okeechobee toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, browning the blue coastal water, choking sea grass beds and crippling businesses that depend on a healthy marine ecology.”

The same “environmental management” philosophy the state of Florida and the governor are applying regarding damaging discharges of Lake Okeechobee water—doing nothing about it while pretending to—describes the behavior of state regulators vis-à-vis FPL and Turkey Point. The same judge that ordered FPL to clean up its canals “found that the state of Florida failed to address the pollution by crafting a faulty management plan.” (Miami Herald)

Finally, locally somebody is doing something. The county commission is up in arms. And: “The county’s chief environmental regulator said he planned to issue another violation — the county cited the utility in October for polluting groundwater — to force FPL to take more steps to fix the chronic problems.” (Miami Herald)

Meanwhile, FPL is following the public relations textbook strategy: deny, deny, deny. “When you look at the big picture, [the canals] are not impacting Biscayne Bay,” according to Matt Raffenberg, FPL’s environmental services director.

By the time business interests and our seamlessly Republican state government admit there is a problem and do something about it our coastal marine environment and groundwater will have been turned into a witches’ brew of chemical, organic, thermal and radioactive waste, from the gulf to the Atlantic and the Everglades.

The only hope of reversing the tide is through a mobilized citizenry and a hard-ball approach against polluters by local government. Miami-Dade is the ideal place to start fighting back hard and fast. For this is not only the largest county in the state by population. It is the only county in the whole country with two national parks (the Everglades and Biscayne National Park).

Right now polluters are busy ruining both national parks. It’s time to say, as the defenders of the Spanish Republic facing Franco’s troops and fascist planes said: “No pasarán.” Only this time, we must prevail.

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