PLYMOUTH — The Mass. Dept of Public Health (DPH) and the state’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) will in the weeks ahead be analyzing untreated water taken from new samples at the former Pilgrim nuclear power plant where decommissioning is underway.
The news was announced by Jack Priest, a member of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP) and director of the radiation control program for DPH, at the panel’s meeting on Monday.
This comes on the heels of a Nov. 17 statement by Holtec Decommissioning President Kelly Trice that the company’s recent sampling of the plant’s wastewater, which had not yet been treated to remove pollutants, was “of higher quality than the current water composition of Plymouth Harbor,” in terms of its nonradioactive contaminants.
Holtec’s senior compliance manager, David Noyes, presented those same findings on Monday, along with historical data on radionuclides in the treated wastewater from 2015, the date of the last release from the plant.
Having Trice’s report made public in this way did not change the state agencies’ determination to move forward on their own testing plans.
At issue is 1.1 million gallons of wastewater from the plant’s spent fuel pool and other systems that Holtec plans to release into Cape Cod Bay. The water, which is currently contaminated with both radioactive and nonradioactive pollutants, would be treated prior to release and then diluted in billions of gallons of seawater before it is released from the plant’s discharge channel.
Public opposition has been strong, but Holtec, the company that now owns and is decommissioning the plant, has maintained the release will not cause harm.
According to Priest, the agencies will be measuring both radionuclides and nonradioactive pollutants. The testing will be done on raw samples of untreated wastewater taken at the plant. State agency representatives will be present when Holtec draws the samples, which should be taking place in the next few weeks.
“It’s not going to be, I walk over to the edge with a dip bucket and grab water off the top,” Priest said. “It has to be representative of the water in the tank.”
Seth Pickering, a panel member and deputy regional director for DEP’s Bureau of Air and Waste, and Gerard Martin, deputy regional director of DEP’s Bureau of Water Resources, will be at the plant to witness the sampling along with Priest.
The samples will then be split. DPH and DEP will take their samples. Holtec will conduct its own testing.
Priest said he will analyze the water at DPH for radionuclides. The DEP will hire a laboratory to test for myriad nonradioactive pollutants that are regulated under a discharge permit issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state DEP.
Martin provided a list of the pollutants his agency will look for, including oil and grease, dissolved solids, total residual oxidants, several metals, cyanide, sodium nitrite, asbestos, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds known as PFAS, and PCBs.
The two state agencies will then forward their results to a panel of scientific experts being established by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.
The agencies expect to have the test results ready to present at the next meeting of the NDCAP in late January.
DPH and DEP will again be supplied with samples of the water once it has gone through Holtec’s treatment system, which the company says will filter out both radionuclides and nonradioactive pollutants. The idea is to test the effectiveness of the company’s proposed water treatment.
That likely won’t happen for a while. For now, Priest said, Holtec continues to use the water as shielding for workers as it dismantles radioactive plant components, which would push any treatment into at least the second quarter of next year.
EPA officials have told Holtec on a few occasions that the existing wastewater discharge permit and surface water discharge agreements prohibit the discharge of pollutants in spent fuel pool water and other wastewater from the decommissioning.
Trice has disagreed with the EPA on what the permit allows. But Noyes indicated Monday the company is preparing to deal with the EPA’s terms: he said they now plan to apply for a modification of the discharge permit.
“This is the path EPA has given us to move forward, and this is the path we will follow,” Noyes said. “We believe it will enable us to, without reservation by DEP or EPA, move forward.”
According to Pickering and Martin, the application process for a permit modification is complex and would require both state and federal reviews, along with a review by the Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management. If a new permit is required, the review would be even more extensive under the Mass. Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
Holtec has not yet submitted that application. Once it does, an EPA spokesman told the Independent, the review process would take at least 12 months.
New NDCAP member James Lampert, an attorney and the husband of member Mary Lampert, an organizer of Pilgrim Watch, has argued the planned wastewater release is prohibited under the state’s Clean Water Act and Ocean Sanctuaries Act.
David Nichols, another NDCAP member, challenged Lampert on that idea, saying the federal Atomic Energy Act would preempt such state laws. But Lampert countered that preemption comes into play only when the state and federal laws are in conflict in a way that won’t allow for both to be complied with. Holtec, Lampert said, could comply by simply using the other three options for managing the wastewater, which include evaporating it, storing it, or shipping it off-site.
Newly appointed NDCAP member Andrew Gottlieb, the executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, spent 16 years at DEP and for 10 years was the executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative.
Gottlieb seconded Lampert’s opinion that Holtec’s water release would be a discharge of commercial or industrial waste, which is prohibited under the Ocean Sanctuaries Act. “The legislature opened up the Ocean Sanctuaries Act in 2018 for expanded prospects of municipal discharge,” Gottlieb said. That was done to accommodate municipal sewage treatment. But Gottlieb said that when it came to discharges such as Holtec’s, the legislature is “not interested in another carve-out.”
In setting regulations, it comes down to assessing risk, Priest said. “Basically, people want to know if we have a release, if they are successful, what is the consequence of that.”
The DPH representative made the position of the various state agencies clear. “The delegation at the state is working with our legislative people to minimize the risk, and it’s our preference to not release the water into Cape Cod Bay,” Priest said.