June 01, 2016

Environmental groups return to court over Legislature's diverting Amendment 1 money

EvergladesFour environmental groups on Wednesday asked a court to accelerate its ruling in a lawsuit accusing the Florida Legislature of violating the state Constitution and misdirecting Amendment 1 environmental funds into salaries and inappropriate operating expenses.

The groups, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, are asking a court to transfer$299 million  general revenue money into those programs and restore the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The fund was created by voters in 2014, after the Legislature brought the state's 50-year-old land buying program to a halt during the Great Recession.The Land and Water Conservation Amendment required that one third of all proceeds from real estate transaction taxes be set aside for the environment and voters approved it by 75 percent of the vote. 

In 2015, the first year the law was in effect, proceeds totaled $750 million. But instead of putting all the money into new environmental programs, lawmakers reasoned that they could divert $216 million into appropriated for salaries and operating expenses for existing environmental programs and $26 million for agriculture pollution control projects on private land.

The motion for summary judgment argues that since there is no dispute about what lawmakers have done, the Leon County Circuit Court should declare the Legislature in violation of the constitution and order the money replaced. 

"It's a wound that won't heal because it was such a breach of faith with Florida voters,'' said David Guest, attorney for the environmental groups. "The governor endorsed the defiance of the amendment and the Legislature did too."

The groups first filed the lawsuit against Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Cristafulli in July 2015. The Legislature, joined by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, asked that the case be dismissed and argued that the court has no authority over how the Legislature spends state money. 

But the court refused to dismiss the case and, the plaintiffs argue, that with no facts in dispute, the judge should declare that money intended for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund may not be used for expenses outside the intended scope of the amendment. 

"Nowhere does the Amendment contemplate spending money for restoration or improvement of private lands, or appropriations for projects on private lands that have a general environmental benefit,'' the groups wrote in the motion. "If that were true, funds from the Amendment could be used to modernize the wastewater treatment systems of pulp mills."

Instead, the purpose of Amendment 1 is "to dedicate funds to 'acquire and restore conservation and recreation lands,''' they argue. 

"Instead of appropriating money for those purposes, the Legislature appropriated Amendment One funds as if the terms 'management' and 'restoration of natural system' in the text of the Amendment encompassed the salaries and operating expenses of state agencies with a nexus to conservation or improvement of the environment,'' the motion states.

The result, they say, is that the Legislature's interpretation of Amendment 1 gives it "no effect other than preventing expenditures by environmental agencies to be reduced below one-fifth of the current funding level."

The Legislature is expected to respond with its own brief in opposition. 


May 20, 2016

'Hands Across the Sand' event offers window into election year politics of 'fracking'

HandsAcrossSandsRep. Kathleen Peters, the former Republican mayor of the tiny seaside town of South Pasadena in Pinellas County, has found what it's like to be hit by the anti-fracking wave.

Peters is seeking a third term is a Republican and faces Democrat Jennifer Webb, an administrator at the University of South Florida. She plans to attend the annual Hands Across the Sands event tomorrow in which state and local leaders declare their abiding opposition to oil drilling off Florida's coasts.

But a press release Friday from an organization called the Superior Small Lodging Association, a non-profit representing individually-owned inns, bed & breakfasts, cottages and condos, is raising questions about Peters' opposition to oil drilling after she joined with all but seven of her GOP colleagues and voted for a bill last session that would have authorized the controversial drilling technique known as fracking and prevented local governments from regulating it.

The bill also included a temporary moratorium and would have authorized the activity only after it came before the Florida Legislature for another affirmative vote.

"Small business owners on the beach are questioning her record when it comes to fighting oil drilling and protecting local beaches given her support for fracking,'' writes the organization in its press release.

Mary Wilkerson, owner of Gulfside Resorts in Indian Rocks Beach, called out Peters:  "Basically, Rep. Kathleen Peters voted for a law that pretty much takes away our local control over fracking from cities and counties all over Florida.'' 

June Mohns of Island Paradise Cottages of Madeira Beach speculated that Peters may have voted for HB 191 because she "has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from dirty fossil fuel industry investors.”

Peters says this is all wrong. "I have been against offshore oil drilling since before I was an elected official,'' she said Friday.

She said she supported the fracking bill (which failed to pass in the Senate) and "would support it today because without it we have no regulations and that bill put in place a moratorium and said you can't lift it unless the Legislature allows it. I don't believe the Legislature will ever allow fracking in Florida."

"This is all political,'' Peters said. "I expect we'll be hearing a lot about fracking in this campaign."

Would she support a bill that includes an outright ban on fracking in Florida -- similar to those proposed last session but which got no hearing?

"If a total ban would come up I'd probably support it,'' Peters said. But she prefers the approach taken by the bill's House author, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, to require a study first to see what impact fracking might have on Florida's fragile water table. 

Photo: Facing Old Tampa Bay, on the south side of the Gandy Bridge, about 30 people formed a human chain, holding hands for 15 minutes to demonstrate their objection to offshore drilling and to call for a renewable energy. Times file (2012)



May 19, 2016

NextEra rejects call to report risk of sea level rise to its waterfront nuclear plants

NextEra EnergyIn a swift 17-minute meeting held in a Oklahoma City hotel Thursday, NextEra Energy successfully won shareholder approval of a $31 million compensation package for its five top executives, and defeated two proposals aimed at increasing transparency over how the company is handling sea level rise and political contributions.

"The company you own had a very strong 2015,'' declared NextEra president and CEO Jim Robo as he called the quick meeting to order at the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Oklahoma city.

He is among the company’s five top executives who, shareholders agreed will be paid $31 million in performance pay and stock because of the company’s strong financial performance in the last year. Robo alone earned at least $15.2 million in compensation in 2015, according to the company proxy statement.

The Juno Beach-based company is the parent of Florida Power & Light and one of the nation's largest utility conglomerates. The audio cast of the annual meeting for company shareholders is available on the company’s web site.

Robo cited NextEra’s better than average reliability, its lower than average customers bills, its satisfaction among business customers, its acquisition of a Texas pipeline, and its expanding wind and solar market as evidence of “the whole company delivering outstanding financial performance for our shareholders.”

Robo did not make note of the troubles ahead, such as the federal and state orders for FPL to clean-up its leaking cooling canals in order to stop a plume of saltwater from migrating into South Florida’s drinking water supplies and leaking into Biscayne Bay or the resistance the company faces in its bid to purchase Hawaii Electric.

Robo recognized a representative for Coral Gables activist and NextEra shareholder, Alan Farago and his wife Lisa Versaci, to present their shareholder proposal to require the company to report each year on the risk its faces from sea-level rise, under a range of scenarios and according to the best available science.

Farago has argued that FPL's position as the supplier of electricity to Florida's east coast is "extraordinarily vulnerable to the financial disruptions of climate change."

Continue reading "NextEra rejects call to report risk of sea level rise to its waterfront nuclear plants" »

May 17, 2016

FPL submits plan for clean-up of leaky cooling canals

via @JenStaletovich

Miami-Dade County will spend the next month combing through a massive trove of data submitted by Florida Power & Light this week to justify its plan for cleaning up leaky cooling canals at the utility’s Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

The county has also hired a University of Florida hydrologist to ensure the plan stops an underground plume of saltwater threatening drinking water supplies and leaking into Biscayne Bay.

“We’re not looking to just stop the hypersaline plume, we’re looking to draw it back,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez told commissioners during an update at Tuesday’s county commission meeting, a day after FPL turned over its plan to county environmental regulators. “We’re actually looking to make it much better and getting back to original conditions.”

FPL has been grappling with problems at the plant, the sixth largest in the nation, since 2014 when temperatures in the canals spiked during a regional drought. The crisis, which twice caused the plant’s two nuclear reactors to power down, shed light on a thornier problem — for decades, salinity in canals used to cool the plant has been creeping up and causing an underground plume of saltwater to spread. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, canal water has now migrated more than five miles west of the canals, closing in a wellfield that supplies drinking water to the Florida Keys.

But fixing the problem has been a complex process, complicated by science and politics.

In a report requested by Commissioner Rebeca Sosa and finalized last week, University of Miami hydrologist David Chin faulted the utility for doing too little to ensure the canals would work properly before it uprated the plant’s two reactors to produce more energy. Story here. 

FPL delays nuclear expansion as it deals with canal clean-up, but wants to charge customers for expansion anyway

FPL salt at turkey point

Florida Power & Light has told state officials that it will put a four-year pause on its construction plans for two proposed nuclear power plants at its troubled Turkey Point site but it wants the state to waive the requirement that it show the project is still "feasible" in order to charge customers in advance for it. 

"The analysis would impose a substantial hardship upon FPL and violate principles of fairness," FPL wrote in an motion filed April 27 with the Florida Public Service Commission.

This week, the City of Miami, consumer groups, environmental advocates and some of the state's largest electric power users, urged utility regulators to reject that request, saying FPL should be required to justify whether it is allowed to continue charging customers for a project that may be on the skids.

"If a project is no longer feasible or practical, then the costs incurred are not prudent,'' wrote City of Miami attorney Victoria Mendez in a motion filed with the PSC on Tuesday. "...Since FPL plans to continue recovering costs pursuant to section 366.93 while doing no additional work towards the completion of the project, it is imperative that FPL demonstrate the project is still economically feasible and practical.'' 

Since 2008, FPL has charged customers $281 million for the planning and licensing costs of two new nuclear power units -- Units 6 and 7 -- at its Turkey Point site on Biscayne Bay. It now wants to be able to charge customers another $22 million in the coming year.

The co-called "nuclear cost recovery" fee has been controversial since lawmakers created it in 2006. In 2013, after Duke Energy customers spent more than $1.5 billion financing a failed nuclear project, the Florida Legislature revised the law to require utility companies to prove that a nuclear project is feasible before the Public Service Commission gives the company permission to move into the "preconstruction" phase of the project.

"This annual feasibility analysis serves to safeguard customers from potentially paying millions of dollars over numerous years on a project when the long-term feasibility analysis may show that it is no longer viable going forward, and, accordingly, may be abandoned,'' wrote the Florida Office of Public Counsel, which represents the public in rate cases in its motion filed Monday.

The future of FPL's planned nuclear expansion project has become inevitably tied to the clean-up of a massive underground salt water plume that is migrating towards South Florida's water supply. The plume is expected to have been caused by the utility company's 2013 nuclear plant expansion, intended to increase power output by 15 percent, which forced the canals to become dangerously warm. Story here. 

Continue reading "FPL delays nuclear expansion as it deals with canal clean-up, but wants to charge customers for expansion anyway" »

May 05, 2016

Donald Trump's backers, unlike candidate, believe in climate change

via @jenstaletovich

Backers of a President Donald Trump, who once called climate change a “con job,” may beg to differ with their leader.

According to a new survey by Yale University, 56 percent of Trump’s supporters believe climate change is happening, although they also believe nature is behind the planet’s rising seas and melting ice caps, not greenhouse gases generated by humans.

The survey, completed in March before contenders Ted Cruz and John Kasich suspended their campaigns, was conducted to assess voters’ stance on climate change and gauge how the country should respond. Democrats typically supported action. No surprise. But Republican voters had some less predictable responses. Take their view of renewable energy. A majority of Trump backers — 70 percent — favor putting more money into research.

Trump, who fought a three-year battle to stop a wind farm within sight of his Scottish golf resort and last year told a 12-year-old girl in New Hampshire that windmills “kill a lot of birds,” not so much. While Trump said in January he was joking about blaming the Chinese for fabricating the concept of climate change, he still argued it is a “a very expensive form of tax.”

For more, read here.

May 02, 2016

FPL estimates cost of cleaning up salt water plume headed for aquifer: $50 million, paid by customers

by @JenStaletovich

At a rare state Senate field hearing, Florida Power & Light defended its operation of the troubled cooling canal system at Turkey Point and its plans to contain the spread of an underground salt water plume.

For the first time, the utility also put a price tag on its ongoing clean-up efforts at the nuclear power plant on southern Biscayne Bay — an estimated $50 million this year alone.

FPL’s vice president of governmental affairs, Mike Sole, told a standing-room-only crowd at the Friday afternoon meeting in Homestead that the bill for that work would likely be passed along to customers.

The hearing, requested by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who is facing a tough race for the district that includes the sprawling plant, came amid increased scrutiny of the canals after a series of lawsuits and studies showing the super salty canals have leaked both east into Biscayne Bay and west toward underground drinking water supplies.

The utility has also been criticized for ignoring its own reports and acting too slowly to control the worsening plume.

In recent years, the salt front has advanced at about 600 feet per year in the region, Lee Hefty, chief of Miami-Dade County’s division of Environmental Resources Management told lawmakers. Story here. 


April 26, 2016

After waiting years, state cites FPL for threatening drinking water, wants clean-up plan in 60 days

FPL salt at turkey point

via @JenStaletovich


Days after issuing a controversial plan for managing the troubled cooling canal system at Turkey Point, state environmental officials have cited Florida Power & Light for threatening nearby drinking water supplies and ordered the utility to hammer out a fix to stop the spread of an underground plume of saltwater.

In a notice to FPL officials Monday, the Department of Environmental Protection gave the utility 21 days to provide any information about how the 40-year-old canals have seeped into the Biscayne aquifer over the years and enter negotiations to come up with a clean-up plan. If the two sides fail to agree, the agency may come up with its own measures in 60 days, the notice said.

DEP Water Resource Management Director Frederick Aschauer also warned FPL that a new problem — in March Miami-Dade County detected canal water in Biscayne Bay — may be violating other state laws, for which the utility may be liable for damages. Aschauer gave FPL 15 days to set up a meeting.

The two notices come years late for critics, who say there has long been compelling evidence that the massive one-of-a-kind cooling canal system was degrading water quality far beyond the borders of the nuclear power plant along southern Biscayne Bay.

After DEP signed off on a December 2014 uprating project that expanded power output from the plant’s twin reactors, rock miner Steve Torcise, Tropical Audubon and neighboring cities including Miami sued, saying state regulators did too little to address a growing underground plume that has pushed saltwater inland about four miles. An administrative judge in February agreed, faulting DEP for not citing the agency for violations and ordering state officials to redo the plan.

Last week, the Miami Herald reported that FPL knew about super salty canal water pushing inland since at least 2010 when it conducted its own in-house study. The study found adding fresh water alone, a fix FPL sought repeatedly as canals grew hotter after the expansion, would likely worsen the plume.

More here. 


House passes oil spill law pushed by Carlos Curbelo, Patrick Murphy


The U.S. House on Tuesday passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by two South Florida members of Congress that would make sure any foreign companies responsible for oil spills are on the hook for clean-up costs.

The Foreign Spill Protection Act, by Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Jupiter Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, would close a loophole in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that leaves the U.S. footing the bill when spills caused by foreign rigs or rigs in foreign waters exceed $1 billion in clean up. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill cost $54 billion.

"I thank the House of Representatives for passing this critical legislation for Florida and coastal communities all across the country," Curbelo said in a statement. "This is a victory not only for our environment but also for American taxpayers and may lead our foreign neighbors to improve their safety and oversight standards."

"As a native Floridian, protecting our environment remains one of my top priorities," Murphy said in a statement. "When our economy so greatly relies on the health of our waters, we must do everything we can to protect our coastline from devastating oil spills."

Both congressmen spoke on the House floor about the bill, and in their written statements, they thanked each other for working together, and the House in general for its unanimous approval. Murphy is running for U.S. Senate in the nation's largest swing district, while Curbelo is seeking re-election to his own swing district that includes the Florida Keys.

The legislation has yet to be taken up by the Senate.



April 21, 2016

Florida governor says he's unfamiliar with FPL power lines ruling


Florida Gov. Rick Scott got a question in Hollywood on Thursday about Wednesday's momentous ruling against Florida Power & Light over its Miami power lines project.

"I haven't seen it," the governor said.

An appeals court found Scott and the Florida Cabinet failed to consider the city of Miami's development regulations in backing FPL's plan.