The state moved Monday to block Holtec International from discharging radioactive waste water from the decommissioned Pilgrim nuclear power plant into Cape Cod Bay, the latest salvo in a years-long dispute over how best to dispose of the water.
Holtec, a Florida-based energy company responsible for cleaning up the Pilgrim site in Plymouth, has long sought to release more than 1 million gallons of waste water into the bay, a plan that has been fiercely opposed by local activists.
In March, the company asked both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for permission to discharge the waste water, which contains low levels of radioactive material and some non-radioactive pollutants and is sitting in spent-fuel pools inside the shut-down plant.
Holtec has insisted that the waste water, which would be treated before release, poses no environmental or health dangers, and has noted that water continuously cycled through the plant and into the bay during the plant’s operation.
But activists have rejected the company’s argument that the discharge would be safe and have also contended that the mere perception of contamination could have ruinous effects on tourism and lobstering, two mainstays of the local economy.
On Monday afternoon, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft decision denying Holtec’s request, saying the release would violate a state law banning the discharge of industrial waste into protected waters.
“I’ve long expressed serious concerns about Holtec’s proposal to discharge decommissioning waste water into Cape Cod Bay,” Governor Maura Healey said in a statement. “Our administration is committed to protecting our precious environmental resources and we will continue to monitor Holtec’s role in decommissioning the now-closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.”
Activist groups from the South Shore and Cape Cod have demanded in recent days that the Healey administration deny Holtec’s permit application. On Monday, they praised the draft decision, which could be finalized within 30 days after a period of public comment.
“Holtec needs to now come up with other options for the waste water because dumping in our bay . . . is illegal, period,” said Diane Turco, head of the Cape Downwinders, one of the groups.
Holtec’s other options for disposing of the waste water include shipping it to out-of-state disposal sites or evaporating it, both of which would be more expensive than releasing the water into the bay, activists have contended.
Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, said that if the state denies Holtec’s application to discharge the water, the EPA will have no choice but to do the same.
A state denial, he said, would be the “death knell” for Holtec’s plans to release the water into the bay.
An EPA spokesperson would not comment Monday on whether a state decision would override the federal agency’s power to make a different decision. The agency, the spokesperson said, “will need to determine the implications of the state’s draft decision on EPA’s review” of Holtec’s application.
Holtec expressed disappointment over the state’s move.
“We will continue with the EPA modification process and will look to evaluate all options related to ultimate disposition of the water used in plant operations for the last 50 years,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
The controversy over Holtec’s plan to discharge the waste water burst into public view in the fall of 2021.
At a public meeting, Holtec executives said that they were considering three disposal options — discharge into the bay, trucking, and evaporation — and that a final decision had not been made.
But after a staffer from the office of US Representative William Keating reached out to federal regulators, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told him in an email that “Holtec has informed the NRC that it plans to discharge liquid effluents sometime in the first quarter of 2022.”
That is, it appeared Holtec planned to dump the waste water imminently.
That message added urgency to the local protest movement opposing the water discharge, and heightened the scrutiny from elected officials.
At a May 2022 hearing, Keating asked Holtec’s chief executive, Kris Singh, how much it would cost to remove the waste water by truck. Singh said he didn’t know.
“That meant to me that he hadn’t considered it seriously,” Keating told the Globe last year. He worried there was an “incentive for the company to dump the water because it’s less expensive,” he said.
Holtec draws on a trust fund to cover the bulk of the expenses associated with dismantling the plant and restoring the property. The money in the trust fund came from fees assessed on residents’ electric bills during the plant’s nearly 50 years of operation.
If there is money left over in the trust fund after the cleanup is completed, Holtec may get to keep it.
Gottlieb, the Cape Cod environmental advocate, said Holtec should dispose of the waste water in a way that is acceptable to the local community, even if doing so is more expensive.
In the past, he said, treated waste water did exit the plant and flow into the bay. But that was a necessary consequence of operating the power plant, he said. Holtec’s proposed discharge of waste water now is different, he contended, because it is a matter of convenience and cost-saving for the company, not a necessity.
“It’s a good day for Massachusetts,” he said Monday after the release of the state’s draft decision, “in the face of a corporate bully insisting they had the unfettered right to discharge illegal waste water.”