DEP’s draft decision blocks path to nuclear wastewater release for now


PLYMOUTH — The state Dept. of Environmental Protection issued a draft determination on July 24 denying a permit modification that would have allowed Holtec, the company decommissioning the shuttered Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, to release over one million gallons of wastewater into Cape Cod Bay.

The decision was based on a state law protecting water bodies, including Cape Cod Bay, that are designated “ocean sanctuaries.”

Seth Pickering, deputy regional director of DEP’s Bureau of Air and Waste, explained the draft decision during Monday’s meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP) in Plymouth. “The Ocean Sanctuaries Act prohibits the dumping and discharge of commercial, municipal, domestic, or industrial wastes into ocean sanctuaries,” Pickering said. “The wastewater that the facility proposes to discharge qualifies as industrial wastewater, and therefore discharges are prohibited under the Act.”

The wastewater, although treated, would still contain both radioactive and nonradioactive contaminants.

The state Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), the agency that oversees the Ocean Sanctuaries Act, agreed with DEP’s interpretation of the law. That office’s director, Lisa Berry Engler, sent a letter to the DEP on July 24 citing several sections of the act that would prohibit the release. “CZM’s analysis reaches the same conclusion as MassDEP’s interpretation of the Act in this matter,” Engler wrote.

Holtec says the battle isn’t over yet. At Monday’s meeting, Holtec’s compliance manager David Noyes said the company intends to look at its options, which include submitting additional information to support its case for the water release and exercising its right to request a public hearing.

The draft determination requires a 30-day public comment period — through Aug. 28. After considering the comments, DEP can finalize its draft decision.

“We are disappointed by the state’s denial of our permit modification for discharge of treated water from Pilgrim Station,” Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said in a statement on behalf of the company. He called the water the company wants to release “well within safe limits.”

“We will continue with the EPA modification process,” O’Brien wrote. That means the company is preparing for the DEP’s decision to fall through: a permit modification would need to be approved federally by the Environmental Protection Agency, but DEP approval on a change to the surface water discharge permit would have to come first.

O’Brien took the position that the permitting process has slowed economic development at the site. His statement continued: “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.”

An Example for Others

DEP’s draft decision comes 18 months after Holtec announced its plan to release the water into the bay, triggering objections from the public, federal and state legislators for the region, local officials, and the fishing and tourism industries.

Diane Turco, president of the Cape Downwinders, which is now part of a coalition called Save Our Bay, praised Gov. Maura Healey and her administration in an interview after the July 24 decision was announced. “I look forward to keeping this going to seal the deal to halt Holtec,” Turco said. “Then we can be an example for communities across the country that are going to have to fight Holtec over this same issue.”

Holtec is currently decommissioning the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, where it has released wastewater, and the Indian Point plant in New York, where officials and others are opposed to a release of water into the Hudson River.

Healey, while she was the state attorney general, was instrumental in crafting an agreement requiring Holtec to obey state laws. “I’m glad to see this tentative decision from MassDEP,” Healey wrote in a statement. She said that her administration will continue to monitor Holtec’s role in the decommissioning at Pilgrim.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey also issued a statement calling the MassDEP decision a win “for the environment and for all of the people, businesses, and organizations that rely on Cape Cod Bay’s reputation for clean and safe water.”

“The denial of Holtec’s permit modification is an incredibly meaningful win for the countless Cape and Islands advocates who have long worked to block the discharge of radioactive wastewater into our bay,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr in a statement to the Independent.

Gray Areas?

NDCAP member James Lampert said the public certainly didn’t anticipate it would take 18 months for DEP to issue a draft decision, and he wondered how long it might take the agency to finalize its draft.

Pickering would not make a prediction about that. The 30-day public comment period could be extended at the request of Holtec or those who have submitted comments, “if the department determines that such an extension would be in the public interest,” Pickering said.

Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and an NDCAP member, said he hopes the draft decision will allow the panel and the public to move on to other important matters related to the decommissioning of the Plymouth nuclear plant.

When the plant was producing electricity, its periodic releases of wastewater into the bay were allowed under an exemption in the Ocean Sanctuaries Act. Now that the plant has been shut down, that exemption no longer applies.

“It changes the applicability of the Act entirely, and as a result we don’t need to any longer get into the mind-numbing conversations about what level of tritium is okay, what’s happening at Fukushima, and who thinks it’s okay and who doesn’t,” Gottlieb said during Monday’s meeting.

“The plain black-letter reading of the law is that a new discharge from a point source into an ocean sanctuary, of which Cape Cod Bay is one, is prohibited,” Gottlieb said. “End of conversation.”

Noyes responded that the DEP’s decision is not final. “There is nothing in this that’s black and white legal until we get through the process,” he said.

If the denial is finalized, Holtec will have the option of appealing it in Superior Court.

Public comments on the DEP’s draft decision should be sent to: Comments may also be mailed to Cathy Coniaris, MassDEP’s Surface Water Discharge Program, 100 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02114.