State regulators deny plan to dump radioactive wastewater in Cape Cod Bay
by Sam Drysdale
State regulators have denied a permit modification sought by the company in charge of decommissioning the nuclear power plant in Plymouth to discharge 1.1 million gallons of industrial wastewater into Cape Cod Bay.
After years of local opposition to the company's discharge plan, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued the draft determination Monday, stating that Cape Cod Bay is a protected ocean sanctuary under the state's Ocean Sanctuaries Act, which prohibits dumping industrial waste into protected state waters.
In April, Holtec International filed an application to modify its existing decommissioning permit to allow the company to discharge wastewater from the plant's spent nuclear-fuel pool — which contains some radioactive material — into the bay.
The draft determination denying the permit modification requires a 30-day public comment period before MassDEP can finalize the decision, the agency said, noting a comment period is open through 5 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28.
"This is really, really welcome news, and it's through the efforts of many advocates both on the side of federal and state government," said Sen. Susan Moran, of Falmouth, who began her public opposition to the dumping plan before she was elected to the Legislature.
She added, "Holtec owns plants around the country, so I think Massachusetts will lead the way for Holtec to take safer actions for decommissioning. It's excellent news not just for Massachusetts but for the entire country."
Gov. Healey expressed support of MassDEP's decision, saying she's "long expressed serious concerns" about the discharge proposal.
"Our administration is committed to protecting our precious environmental resources and we will continue to monitor Holtec’s role in decommissioning the now-closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station," Healey said in a statement.
Since it was first proposed, local, state and federal activists have resisted Holtec's plan to discharge the wastewater into Cape Cod Bay, voicing concerns over safety for people who go in the water, ocean wildlife, seafood that comes from the bay, and the South Shore and Cape Cod's tourism industry.
"[The Association to Preserve Cape Cod] is gratified that the Healey-Driscoll administration is doing the right thing in moving to deny this reckless and illegal proposal," Cape-based environmental nonprofit APCC Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb said. "Holtec sought to profit at the expense of the people, environment and economy of Cape Cod and, like most corporate bullies, needed to be told no. It has been APCC's priority to prevent this discharge from happening and we developed the solid legal analysis relied upon by DEP in the formulation of this tentative permit decision."
Moran also praised the state's decision.
"This is a fantastic example of government working for the people," she said.
A Holtec spokesman said the company was disappointed by the state's denial of its permit modification "for discharge of treated water from Pilgrim Station well within safe limits" and that the issue has extended the timeline for Pilgrim's decommissioning.
"We will continue with the EPA modification process and will look to evaluate all options related to ultimate disposition of the water used in plant operations for the last 50 years," Holtec Director of Government Affairs and Communications Patrick O'Brien said Monday. "This process has already delayed the completion of the project for an additional four years, impacted the workforce on site and further changes when the site can be returned to be an economic driver for the Plymouth Community."
Last fall, Gov. Charlie Baker struck down the formation of a commission to examine the potential negative environmental effects of dumping radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay.
"I am vetoing this section as the commission's work would be duplicative of, and would interfere with, ongoing work on waste disposal and decommissioning issues by the responsible federal and state agencies," Baker wrote in his veto message.
O'Brien said in May that Baker "had some good reasons" for the veto and similarly referred to the EPA modification process.
"Ultimately, radiological discharges are strictly the purview of the federal government and the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], and right now we're going through the process with the EPA to amend our permit," O'Brien said. "We anticipate it to take at least a year for that process, in addition to the state one which we've looked to amend as well. So we're going to let those play out."