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Power Plays in Florida

Today President Obama takes the bully pulpit for a new energy future to a rural, conservative town in Florida; Arcadia where Florida Power and Light is building the largest solar energy facility in the nation. But in its home state, Florida Power and Light in mired in controversy unlikely to be publicly noted by the president. However politically deft today’s visit may be, President Obama should reflect that Shakespeare used Arcadia in his dramas: it was place where no one ages and nothing decays, where time stands still; in other words perfectly suited for humankind’s ambient atmosphere– deception.

The state’s most powerful electric utility has been fending off a raft of bad news lately: its quest for a 30 percent base rate increase is opposed by Governor Charlie Crist and recession-weary Floridians. In the meantime, an ugly episode boiled up: FPL sought to unduly influence the Public Service Commission by allowing its lobbyists to converse with agency staff through untraceable Blackberry messaging.

Within governmental schematics regulating Florida’s utilities, FPL has been one of the power players that keeps conservation of energy as a low priority in comparison to many other states. Yes, Florida Power and Light is one of the nation’s biggest producers of electricity from wind and solar, but in Florida the corporation is accustomed to getting its own way and has throttled progressive regulation to maximize conservation. Then, there are the local problems.

The main part of public opposition to FPL turns on permitting for new power plants; near the Everglades, the corporation sought to buy off local county commissions and suppress public opposition to a new coal-fired plant. That plan sunk of its own weight. Today, the public is increasingly restive against plans for two new nuclear reactors on the edge of Biscayne National Park in South Florida.

Its existing reactors at Turkey Point in Homestead, Florida were highly controversial when they were built nearly forty years ago. The corporation was forced through extensive civic protest and litigation to build miles and miles of cooling canals instead of ejecting cooling water directly into Biscayne National Park. Today, those cooling canals are not performing as planned and permitted. With nuclear in the ground, there is no turning back the clock on environmental damage.

Public concerns about nuclear safety at Turkey Point have been amplified by bad news on several fronts: salt water intrusion toward drinking water wellfields, and FPL’s ham-fisted attempts to obstruct the use by state agencies to monitor that intrusion through a radioactive isotope, tritium, commonly used as a chemical marker to trace the movement of water. Long-term questions about radioactivity–such as those raised by the Tooth Fairy Project that measured background levels of Strontium 90 in infant’s teeth in South Florida– raise doubts that the state is adequately monitoring public health. Serious breaches in plant safety at Turkey Point and questions about upper level management at FPL caused the Turkey Point plant manager to resign last summer.

Additionally, there are environmental and public health concerns about the new FPL reactors; from controversial permitting at the local level, that eases the way for FPL over the objections of residents to use of recycled municipal wastewater as the primary coolant for the new units, new high voltage overhead transmission lines through heavily populated areas, threats of additional rock mining to Biscayne Bay wetlands in order to elevate a multi- hundred acre site dozens of feet above sea level, new roadway infrastructure through those same wetlands–protected by environmental laws, and the indignity that ratepayers are already paying for permitting costs related to the new reactors as a separate add-on charge approved by the state.

In many ways, the worst possible location for new nuclear power in the United States is at Turkey Point; at sea level and surrounded by fragile wetlands protected by federal law and national parks, including the Everglades– subject of a multi-billion dollar restoration project embraced by a strong bipartisan majority according to recent polling by The Everglades Foundation. One senses that the reasoning behind FPL’s aggressive tactics in South Florida is that if new nuclear can be permitted at Turkey Point, it can be permitted anywhere.

But no where will that cynicism be on display today; in Arcadia, dancing around FPL’s maypole, it is all about delight.

ALAN FARAGO lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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