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EPA: Pilgrim nuclear plant can't dump water into Cape Cod Bay without analyzing pollutants first

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Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning the company decommissioning the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station not to dump radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay without providing the EPA with a full analysis of other pollutants in the water.

In a letter to Holtec on Thursday, the EPA’s regional water director, Ken Moraff, said the agency has never received documentation of pollutants in the spent-fuel pool or other water associated with decommissioning the reactor.

“They can't discharge any pollutants without a permit, so they really should know what's in that water before doing any discharge,” he said.

Holtec has relied on the idea that it has permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to release radioactive water.

But if non-nuclear pollutants are present, they could violate the plant’s permit under the Clean Water Act.

“And then we would need to go through a permitting procedure,” Moraff said.

The EPA letter may represent the biggest hurdle to Holtec’s dumping proposal since it came to light in November. The company has said it is also considering other methods to dispose of about a million gallons of radioactive water.

Other methods include evaporation and trucking the water to an out-of-state storage facility, but Holtec has said those methods have their own risks.

Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, said the EPA letter pushes back against the narrative that no government authority other than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can control the fate of water used to cool Pilgrim’s nuclear fuel assemblies.

“I think that it puts truth to the lie that Holtec is free to do as they had intended to do, and changes the discussion in a really fundamental fashion,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the issue of state jurisdiction over the dumping, the local watchdog group Pilgrim Watch contends that state authority could come from Attorney General Maura Healey’s 2020 settlement with Holtec. The agreement says Holtec must comply with all applicable environmental and health regulations.

Jim Lampert of Pilgrim Watch said the state has a number of regulations that fit the bill.

“The first is the garden-variety act that says it's a crime to throw — and I'll be a little facetious — a candy wrapper out your car window,” he said. “But that covers any disposal of practically anything, frankly, on roads or into the inland or coastal waters.”

Other state rules prohibit dumping in ocean sanctuaries, including Cape Cod Bay.

It’s not clear whether those regulations would be considered applicable under the settlement.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.