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Justices back FPL recouping environmental costs

Saltwater from cooling-canal systems moved into groundwater and into the aquifer.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously approved a regulatory decision that allowed Florida Power & Light to pass along costs to customers for an environmental cleanup project in Miami-Dade County.

Justices sided with the Florida Public Service Commission, which in December 2017 approved a controversial FPL proposal stemming from a saltwater plume that moved from a power-plant complex into the Biscayne Aquifer. The commission said FPL could recoup money from customers through part of monthly bills that goes toward a variety of environmental expenses.

The state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, appealed to the Supreme Court. It argued that customers should not be required to “bail out” the utility for resolving the saltwater problems.

But the Supreme Court, in an 18-page opinion written by Justice Jorge Labarga, focused on part of state law that allows utilities to recover costs to “protect the environment.” Labarga wrote that can include remedying existing environmental problems, along with preventing future problems.

“Because of the nature of the environmental harm at issue in this case, prevention and remediation are inextricably intertwined,” Labarga wrote. “Safeguarding the Biscayne Aquifer from future saline intrusion requires the cleanup of existing saline intrusion, and that action protects the environment from future harm.”

The ruling said FPL estimated it would spend $176 million to address the issues, which involve a cooling-canal system at the utility’s Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade. Saltwater from the cooling-canal system moved into groundwater and into the aquifer.

“By 2014, monitoring data allowed regulators to conclude that CCS (cooling canal system) waters had infiltrated into the Biscayne Aquifer as much as three miles west of the CCS, and that the CCS was releasing, on average, 600,000 pounds of salt per day into the Biscayne Aquifer,” Labarga wrote.

FPL in recent years entered into agreements with Miami-Dade County and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix the problems, and the Public Service Commission said the utility should be able to recover the costs because it is complying with environmental regulations.

In a Supreme Court brief last year, the commission said there “is ample record evidence showing that FPL fully cooperated with its environmental regulators.”

But the Office of Public Counsel, in a brief, blamed FPL for the problems and said customers shouldn’t be required to pay the tab.

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“The money at issue will not pay for ‘compliance’ with laws or regulations designed to protect the environment, but instead will explicitly pay for FPL’s noncompliance because the costs are paying for cleaning up the effects of decades of FPL’s past, unlawful pollution,” the Office of Public Counsel argued.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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