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Nuclear plant to wipe out 765 acres of wetlands

Progress Energy's plans to build a $17 billion nuclear plant in rural Levy County will do more than just add advance charges to its customers' utility bills.

The utility's plans also calls for wiping out about 765 acres of wetlands, according to a public notice posted recently by the agency that issues federal wetland permits, the Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet Progress Energy plans to do little to replace their beneficial effect on the underground aquifer — even as the new power plant slurps up more than 1 million gallons of water a day from that source. At its peak, the plant could use more than 5 million gallons a day.

A report from a consultant hired by the company explains that "few, if any specific hydrologic enhancement projects have been identified that would measurably change … the water environment."

Progress Energy hopes to build its nuclear plant on a 5,000-acre site 4 miles north of the nearest town, Inglis. The company had hoped to start producing power from the plant in 2016, but on May 1 announced that construction had been delayed 20 months because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not allow it to begin construction before site and safety reviews were complete.

Until now, the property has been used by a timber company to grow pine trees. Jamie Hunter, lead environmental specialist for Progress Energy, conceded that on the site "large portions are considered to be wetlands." However, he said, "we consider them to be highly disturbed wetland communities," and thus not as valuable as if they were pristine.

In many places, the water table is above ground for half the year or longer, according to documents the company filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Most of the site lies in the 100-year flood plain, meaning after heavy rain, it is likely to remain inundated for some time.

"That land is prone to flooding," said Brack Barker, a former park ranger who now runs Wild Florida Adventures Kayak Tours in nearby Williston. No matter what the condition of the wetlands, he said, that should be a concern for a site where a nuclear plant will be built.

"Any hurricane event would inundate the vicinity of the plant with storm surge," the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council noted in a report. "On-site the plant and associated facilities may be especially vulnerable to flood hazard."

To build on such a soggy site, the utility plans to put up an impervious wall around the construction to divert water, then truck in enough fill dirt to put the plant 8 feet above the ground.

"It is so mind-boggling," said Emily Casey, a Levy County native and an activist with the Environmental Alliance of North Florida. "It's beyond belief they would even want to build there."

Hunter said the company searched for a site with the least impact, but "it's difficult to find an undeveloped area in the state that does not contain a certain amount of wetlands."

About half of the wetlands scheduled for destruction are on the site itself. The other half are along the 180 miles of corridors where the utility will be running new transmission lines, according to a report by the utility's consultant, Biological Research Associates of Tampa.

The construction will wipe out cypress swamps, forested wetlands, bottomland swamp and freshwater marshes, according to corps documents.

When reviewing permit applications, regulators usually look to see if the applicant has proposed making up for wetland destruction.

Ideally the mitigation replaces the functions of the destroyed wetlands, meaning it does as much to help stem floods, filter pollution, recharge the drinking water supply and provide wildlife habitat. However, scientific studies dating back to the 1980s have found that mitigation seldom makes up for what's lost.

The joint report from Progress Energy and the DEP says the company's plan for mitigation "is expected to provide significant long-term ecosystem benefit."

But the plan does not call for adding any newly created wetlands or restoring any drained wetlands. There will be no acre-for-acre replacement for the swamps and marshes that are paved over by the power plant.

Instead, Progress Energy intends to make the remaining wetlands on its property — and an adjacent parcel also full of planted pines — work better.

The utility would do that primarily by "harvesting and thinning of planted pines," replanting some native plants and doing controlled burns, according to the Biological Research Associates report. Some of the bedding for the pines might be removed to help water flow more easily.

"The intent would be to restore those to their historical wetland function," Hunter said.

Hunter said the company's plans could also include making improvements in the site's next-door neighbor, Goethe State Forest, where ditches have altered some wetlands. By blocking those ditches, Progress Energy can make those wetlands flow more naturally, and save the state's taxpayers some money.

What Emily Casey finds disturbing about the site is that the plant will be pulling millions of gallons of water from the aquifer while destroying wetlands that recharge the underground supply.

"It's not like they're going to put new water into the system,'' she said. "You start pulling this much water out of the aquifer, it's bound to affect things."

But Barker said most people in Levy County don't care about the loss of water or wetlands, given that the project will provide 3,300 construction jobs and then, once in operation, 800 full-time jobs for running the plant. Everybody seems to be "clamoring for jobs, jobs, jobs," he said. "They're after the big money."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Nuclear plant to wipe out 765 acres of wetlands 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 10:27pm]
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