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Legal questions in focus as Pilgrim radioactive water dispute heats up

Jennette Barnes
Gerard Martin of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection speaks at Monday's state panel meeting on the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

Environmental laws — and how to interpret them — are playing an increasing role in the debate over what should happen to the radioactive water inside the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

The applicability of water-discharge permitting rules, federal water-quality standards, and the Massachusetts Ocean Sanctuaries Act have been the focus of recent discussion by the state’s Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

Newly appointed member Andrew Gottlieb contends that to discharge radioactive water, Pilgrim would need new permits, not merely a modification of the old permits. That’s because the old permits were intended to allow release of batches of water used to cool spent nuclear fuel.

“Their discharge [permit] before was for thermal discharge,” he said. “There’s no plant to cool. It’s not the same water. I mean, it might be the same water, but it's not the same purpose.”

The distinction is important, he said, because if Holtec applies for new permits, federal antidegradation regulations would apply. They prohibit action that worsens the existing conditions of water quality.

Gottlieb is executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Another new member of the panel, Pilgrim activist and attorney James Lampert, has argued that discharging the water would violate the Ocean Sanctuaries Act.

“You cannot deposit or discharge any … commercial or industrial waste into a protected ocean sanctuary,” he said at a rally in September to fight the release of radioactive water.

This week, Lampert gave a presentation to the panel on laws, regulations, and permits that apply — or may apply — to Pilgrim.

“Where is this going to end up?” he said. “Unless somebody changes their course, the state -and-EPA locomotive, and the Holtec train, seem destined to run into each other.”

Jennette Barnes
Protesters who oppose the release of radioactive water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station into Cape Cod Bay rally outside Plymouth Town Hall on Monday ahead of a meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

But Holtec representative David Noyes questioned the applicability of the Ocean Sanctuaries Act. He said if Pilgrim doesn’t need new permits, the law would be moot.

Noyes is a new member of the panel as well, though he has been participating in meetings for some time and has worked for Pilgrim since before Holtec acquired the plant from Entergy.

Water testing using “split samples” — tested by Holtec and the state — is expected to take place prior to the panel’s next meeting in January.

State officials from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection said they have arranged to go into the plant and observe Holtec personnel collecting the samples.

The water will come from three places, according to DEP’s Gerard Martin: “The spent-fuel pool, the separator/drier pit, and then down on the bottom, the torus. And the torus is like a big, tubular ring along the bottom of the plant,” he said.

The water will be tested for contaminants by three separate laboratories — one on behalf of Holtec, one for DEP, and one for DPH.

The results will inform how Holtec treats the water prior to disposal.

The company says it expects to handle the water in more than one way, including release of treated water, evaporation, transport to an off-site storage facility, and, if necessary, storage on the Pilgrim site.

Jack Priest, a panel member representing the DPH radiation control program, said the agency would prefer Holtec not release water into Cape Cod Bay.

But how far the state can take its opposition remains a legal question.

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.