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EPA warns company dismantling Pilgrim plant against dumping potentially radioactive waste water into Cape Cod Bay

Pilgrim was shut down in 2019 after 46 years in operation. The water at issue was used to cool spent fuel rods and is being kept in a pool.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a stern letter, the Environmental Protection Agency warned the company dismantling the decommissioned Pilgrim nuclear power plant against proceeding with a plan to dump waste water into Cape Cod Bay.

The letter, dated June 17 and released by Senator Edward J. Markey’s office Wednesday, was the latest salvo in a controversy that has roiled South Shore and Cape Cod communities since last fall. That’s when the company, Holtec, floated the possibility of dumping approximately 1 million gallons of radioactive waste water into the bay.

In May, Holtec told the EPA in a letter that an existing permit allowed it to discharge treated waste water into the bay. But in its reply on June 17, Ken Moraff, a director in the EPA’s water division, flatly disagreed.

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“Your reading of the permit is, in fact, plainly inconsistent with the unambiguous provisions of the permit,” Moraff wrote to the company.

On Wednesday, a Holtec spokesperson said, “We continue to look at all the options available” for disposing the waste water. Holtec did not say if it had responded to the EPA’s letter.

Pilgrim was shut down in 2019 after 46 years in operation. The water at issue was used to cool spent fuel rods and is being kept in a pool inside the nuclear power plant. Holtec could truck the water to a different site for disposal, evaporate it, or — likely the cheapest option, according to activists — discharge it into the bay.

The waste water is believed to contain both radioactive materials, due to the water’s long exposure to the plant’s spent fuel rods, and nonradioactive pollutants. The EPA only has regulatory authority in this case over the nonradioactive pollutants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the disposal of radioactive waste.

According to NRC rules, Holtec may discharge waste water as long as its radioactivity does not exceed certain thresholds. Holtec has said that after the Pilgrim waste water is treated on site, it contains minimal levels of radioactivity.

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“The water can then be released through radiation monitors in batches that are sampled prior to release to ensure the water released is well below regulatory requirements,” the company said in a document released in January.

The initial proposal from Holtec last fall set off an uproar and galvanized a local protest movement, which has pushed the company to pursue a different option for disposing the water.

In an e-mail June 15 to local activist Diane Turco, a Holtec manager said a final decision on the waste water disposal method could be expected in the late summer or fall.

This year, Holtec has sparred with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, elected officials including Markey, local activists, and now the EPA about the waste water issue.

Holtec possesses a permit issued in 2020 that allows it to dump some forms of waste water from the Pilgrim site into the bay. The current dispute stems from how to interpret the permit: what it allows Holtec to do and what it prohibits.

Read the letter:

In its letter to the EPA on May 24, the company asserted the permit only prevented Holtec from discharging waste water if it had not yet been “processed.” Once it was processed according to regulations set out by the NRC, Holtec should be free to release it.

“Such an interpretation is well within the plain language of the . . . permit,” Holtec wrote.

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But in a pointed rebuke, Moraff responded, “EPA does not agree with your position.”

Moraff concluded with a straightforward warning: “Holtec Pilgrim is not authorized under the current [permit] to discharge pollutants [contained] in spent fuel pool water.”

At the heart of the dispute is the question of exactly which contaminants the waste water contains. Heather Govern, vice president of Clean Air and Water at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, said the public has no way of knowing what is in the water. “It’s not a given that Holtec even knows exactly what’s there,” she said Wednesday.

The Conservation Law Foundation has sided with local activists in opposing the waste water discharge plan.

Some of the pollutants expected to be present in this type of waste water include lead, zinc, or carcinogenic chemicals known as PCBs (short for polychlorinated biphenyl), she said. Those pollutants are listed as possible substances of concern in the 2020 permit.

Govern acknowledged that discharging the water could ultimately be deemed safe. But for such a determination to be made, she said, a team of scientists with expertise in marine life, radioactive waste disposal, and other disciplines would have to test the water and analyze the potential impacts of discharging it.

In his letter, Moraff also said the EPA had not “prejudged” the question of whether the permit could eventually be modified to allow Holtec to discharge the waste water. But he warned the company not to be hasty.

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“[N]either you nor EPA can say with any degree of certainty at this time what treatment [of the waste water] may be required,” he wrote.

In a May 9 letter to Markey, Holtec chief executive Kris Singh promised not to release any waste water until a third party expert selected by Markey’s office confirmed that the “radiological levels [are] low enough to ensure that the local marine life remains protected.”

But activists said Holtec’s May 24 letter to the EPA suggested the company was still pressing forward with the plan, or at least keeping its options open.

Turco, the activist, welcomed the EPA’s letter to Holtec. “The EPA said these are the rules and you have a responsibility and obligation to follow them,” she said.

Markey said in a statement that he would “continue to support this and other avenues for transparency . . . in order to safeguard the public trust.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Conservation Law Foundation.


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.