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Company dismantling Pilgrim plant seeks clearance to discharge radioactive wastewater

The decommissioned Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The company in charge of dismantling the decommissioned Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth is seeking a modification to its federal discharge permit that would allow radioactive wastewater to be treated and dumped into Cape Cod Bay, a company representative said Monday.

The move comes after the Environmental Protection Agency told the company, Holtec International, in July that its existing permit does not authorize it to discharge the wastewater into the ocean.

At a livestreamed meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel at Plymouth Town Hall on Monday night, Holtec Senior Compliance Manager David Noyes said the company is working with the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin the process of obtaining a modified permit.

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But when a member of the panel pressed Noyes on whether the company would commit to not discharging any water prior to the resolution of the permit issue, Noyes replied: “I can’t say that.”

His response drew groans from environmental activists and opponents of Holtec’s dumping plan who filled the Town Hall.

The meeting, which lasted more than two and a half hours, was the latest chapter in an ongoing debate around how Holtec should handle more than 1 million gallons of radioactive wastewater that remain held in pools at the plant that was shut down in 2019.

The issue is likely to carry over into the next administration under Governor-elect Maura Healey. Earlier this month, outgoing Governor Charlie Baker vetoed a line in the economic development bill that would have created a commission to examine the environmental and economic impact of discharging the water from the plant. It would have further delayed Holtec from dumping the waste for at least another two years.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said such a commission would be redundant with the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel already in place.

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“The creation of an additional 13-member panel would be duplicative of both the long-standing work of the Citizens Advisory Panel, and of the extensive review process that would be completed by both state and federal agencies if Holtec were to formally submit a discharge request,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

One major question for officials and stakeholders is just how radioactive is the wastewater? Samples are expected to be tested by the state Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection as well as an independent group of specialists selected by Senator Edward J. Markey’s office.

On Monday, Noyes presented test results taken from a treated water tank at the plant in 2015. He said those seven-year-old samples showed levels of radioactivity that are far below federal requirements, but that did not satisfy opponents.

“The whole presentation is a red herring,” Diane Turco, the director of the Cape Downwinders advocacy group, said at the meeting. “It has nothing to do with a new permit. It has to do with Holtec trying to manipulate information.”

Holtec officials have said there are four options for getting rid of the waste: treat the water and discharge it into the bay, ship it to another location for disposal, vaporize it, or have it stored on site.

At a congressional hearing last spring, Holtec Chief Executive Kris Singh and Markey discussed the possibility of shipping the water to another site for disposal, instead of discharging it into the bay. After Singh said the company would consider the possibility, he wrote to Markey in a June 6 letter that the company had “discarded the idea.”

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On Monday, Noyes said all options remain available, but opponents were skeptical.

Representatives for Markey, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Bill Keating attended the meeting, which was livestreamed over Zoom.

“We must hold Holtec accountable to their commitment to listen to stakeholders and we must protect against any unsafe release of this water,” Markey said in a statement read aloud by his state director, Jim Cantwell.

“The public deserves to have a say in how Holtec’s waste is disposed,” the statement continued. “We have four options and we keep pressing for other options to be reviewed in order to make sure that the public will be fully informed about both the contents of that waste and the potential impacts of its disposal.”


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.