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NRC fines Turkey Point for staff integrity issues

HOMESTEAD — The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates commercial nuclear power plants, has levied a $150,000 civil penalty against Florida Power & Light for three violations stemming from two separate incidences in 2019 of staff falsifying records and concealing work errors at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station.

The independent agency concluded that the violations did not cause any threats to public safety, but that the potential consequences of the three violations were significant and concerning to the NRC, according to a released statement.

All three violations involved deliberate misconduct involving integrity issues on the part of multiple individuals, according to the statement.

“We confirmed these violations during two independent investigations, which the NRC completed in 2020,” said NRC Public Affairs Officer Dave Gasperson. “The penalty is for three violations over two separate incidents. It is not itemized a specific amount for each of the violations individually.”

The first violation at Turkey Point happened on Jan. 23, 2019, when three mechanics falsified information in a work order associated with the inspection and maintenance of a safety-related check valve.

FPL staff recorded inaccurate information in the work order, according to the NRC, which therefore determined staff’s actions were deliberate and caused FPL to be in violation of “completeness and accuracy of information.”

The second and third violations occurred July 10, 2019, when two technicians performed maintenance on the incorrect pressure switch on the wrong reactor, which caused the operating charging pump to cease functioning.

Two former long-term FPL technicians were assigned to work on a nuclear generating Unit 4C charging pump oil pressure switch but instead worked on its twin Westinghouse Three-Loop Unit 3C charging pump oil pressure switch, which ultimately caused the Unit 3C charging pump to trip.

“The technicians, a supervisor and department head willfully failed to inform control room staff that maintenance had been performed on the wrong unit’s CVCS charging pump. A supervisor and a department head influenced others within the department to conceal this maintenance error,” Gasperson said.

When the 3C pump tripped on low oil pressure at 10:09 a.m., the technicians reviewed a work order and recognized they were working on Unit 3 and not Unit 4.

Rather than immediately calling the Unit 3 main control room, as required by plant procedure, the technicians restored the oil low pressure switch to its normal alignment, exited the room and informed the supervisor and department head of the error by phone, the NRC found.

FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said Turkey Point does not compromise when it comes to safety.

“As soon as we became aware of these situations ... we conducted a thorough investigation and the individuals involved no longer work for Florida Power & Light,” he said. “While we are disappointed that this occurred, it is important to remember that our detailed review found that at no time was the safety of the plant or public comprised.”

Robbins said FPL accepts the NRC’s findings and will not contest the civil penalty.

In late 2019, the NRC permitted subsequent license renewals to FPL Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station units 3 and 4. The decision to extend the operation of the reactors from 60 to 80 years — until 2052 and 2053, respectively — will make them the oldest functioning units in the country.

Those two units generate about 1,600 million watts of electricity, which is enough power to supply the annual needs of more than 900,000 homes.

Sheriff making push to curb opioids in Keys

MONROE COUNTY — While the ongoing pandemic is the prominent health crisis at the moment, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay is warning about a lingering, insidious public health emergency: opioid addiction.

In recent weeks, the arrest log has seen a large number of local arrests for trafficking, dealing and possession of drugs such as oxycodone and heroin, as well as cocaine and sometimes even methamphetamine, which Ramsay said never used to appear in the Florida Keys.

Speaking to the Free Press from his office at the Marathon substation Thursday, Ramsay pointed out a woman being brought down the hallway in handcuffs, arrested that day for dealing. She is one who Ramsay describes as a “frequent flyer” with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

With the drug influx, the department added a drug-sniffing canine to its force a few months ago. K9 Coral, as the dog is known, has been busy since joining, according to Ramsay. In fact, Coral has been so successful that Ramsay plans to add another dog soon and assign it to the traffic enforcement division.

Since March 27, several people have been arrested after being pulled over for a routine traffic stop when officers discovered large amounts of drugs and sometimes money in their vehicle. Alexandra Lisa Artiles, of Marathon, was arrested April 5 when she was pulled over for an obstructed license plate on Grassy Key and a search of the vehicle revealed 220 oxycodone pills and over $1,500 in cash. The night before that, Stock Island resident Glenn Steven Hanes was arrested after being stopped near mile marker 84 for driving with no tail lights illuminated. The vehicle smelled strongly of marijuana, according to deputies, and a search found almost 10 ounces of methamphetamine and almost 15 grams of cocaine, along with marijuana. Jerome Sanders, of Miami, was pulled over for speeding March 27 on Big Pine Key and was arrested for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

Ramsay said this is part of a trend that is being seen all over the nation, caused by corruption within the pharmaceutical and medical industries, in which patients were prescribed large amounts of highly addictive painkillers for minor pain and became dependent on them in the process. If unable to obtain more pills, they would sometimes turn to illegal narcotics when they were unable to kick the addiction.

“Studies show as much as 80% of people who are addicted to heroin at one time had a legal prescription from a doctor for pain management,” Ramsay said. “At some point in time the doctors no longer filled those scripts. For the longest time you were seeing the most prescribed drug across the nation was Oxycontin. These were being prescribed across the nation by doctors for every type of pain imaginable. Minor stuff, oxys.”

Ramsay said that Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures Oxycontin, made a marketing push to get doctors to prescribe the drug that he says is 10 times as addictive as crack cocaine, and that the state of Florida had huge amounts of “pill mills,” medical professionals who pushed unwarranted amounts of addictive medication on patients. As a result, the Florida Keys are now feeling the effects, with illegal drugs being brought in from the Miami area and distributed.

Once law enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Florida Attorney General began to take legal action against doctors for these copious prescriptions, many of them ceased prescribing Oxycontin, but for many residents, from all walks of life, they were already harboring a severe addiction.

For a time, according to Ramsay, the department saw a large amount of home burglary calls where the only things missing were items from the medicine cabinet. Some people would go to their doctor to ask for a new prescription, after having gone through theirs, but a doctor was only allowed to write a prescription for the painkillers every 28 days. So the doctor would recommend reporting the drugs stolen so the patient could get more.

“We had people who were coming here to report crimes, saying ‘someone stole my medicine.’ We’re like ‘bullcrap.’ We’re not taking all these reports which will run up our crime stats and take time for officers to write bogus reports so you can use that report to get more drugs. We told doctors to stop sending people to us.”

The problem is so bad at this point that Ramsay’s officers (and in many other departments) carry Narcan, a drug that can mitigate the effects of an opioid overdose, potentially saving lives. Lots of heroin is now laced with fentanyl, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Narcan is not only to administer to the public, but to his officers after touching powdery substances, since fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin and sometimes through a rubber glove, according to Ramsay, and very small amounts can be lethal.

Ramsay said more drugs than ever are coming into communities and he hopes to push back as much as possible, though he said the war on drugs is not winnable. The best result would be reducing the negative effects, he said. He is planning to use his canines more and has directed his officers to be diligent when looking for signs of drug use or possession during traffic stops. Ramsay also recently hired a new director for the narcotics unit, Vince Weiner, who he says has a “wealth of knowledge and experience” in law enforcement. The dogs were bought at Weiner’s request.

Ramsay compares the effort to stop drug use to America’s war in Afghanistan. It is long, ongoing and likely will not be solved.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there is a demand, there is a supply. Doesn’t matter if it’s Prohibition, they didn’t stop alcohol. When there’s a prohibition on illegal drugs, it’s never stopped them,” Ramsay said. “There’s so much money here, there’s too much financial reward for people who don’t want to get a real job. They figure if they get arrested, it’s just part of doing business. I’ll do my time and get out.”

Gun bills frequent Florida legislative session

MONROE COUNTY — Several bills have been introduced in the 2021 Florida legislative session that are seeking to scale up or roll back regulations on guns in the state as a slough of mass shootings rock the nation and the debate on gun control intensifies.

One bill that was already passed by the state House of Representatives, titled “Safety of Religious Institutions,” would allow those with concealed carry permits to enter churches, synagogues or other religious institutions while armed. It easily passed the House by a vote of 76-37. Among those who voted in favor of the bill was state Rep. Jim Mooney, R-Islamorada, who represents Monroe County and south Miami-Dade County. Mooney was clear that this law will be left up to the discretion of the churches and does not remove their right to regulate weapons on their property. The bill is now in the Florida Senate rules committee.

A number of bills are seeking to make it easier to carry weapons. One proposed bill would eliminate the requirement of a concealed carry permit for someone to carry a weapon. Two other bills would allow carrying guns without a concealed carry permit on college campuses and in legislative meetings. Two other bills in the Florida House, one of which is titled the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” say that any registration, tracking of firearms or their owners, or any taxes levied on firearms or ammunition are infringements on the Second Amendment and should be considered void.

On the other side, some Democratic members of the House and Senate have filed bills hoping to impose new regulations on guns. Identical bills in the Senate and House have been filed that would ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines outright. Another is seeking to make the requirements for obtaining a concealed carry permit more rigid. Since Republicans control both legislative chambers, the Democratic bills are expected to have little chance of passing.

Mooney said all bills are likely to be changed and amended as they pass through committee. He has not yet looked at any other gun bill and said he could not comment on them until he had.

State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, who represents Monroe County, did not respond to requests for comment on any of the bills.

For years, the Florida Legislature has had a preemption law in effect that prohibits county or municipal governments from imposing any type of gun control regulation. It was passed into law in 1987 and states that the Legislature is “occupying the whole field on regulation of firearms and ammunition.”

When asked of her thoughts on the preemption and the gun laws currently proposed in the Florida Legislature, Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron declined to comment. Other preemption bills that limit county or municipal authority are often opposed by local officials.

The same question was posed to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, whose office issued a statement saying, “The sheriff supports the Second Amendment and the right of individuals to lawfully own firearms. As you know, the Sheriff’s role is to enforce the laws rather than to create them. He is not in a position to weigh in on all of the various firearms related issues currently being considered by the Florida Legislature.”

Brian Judnich moved to Key Largo from Detroit about four years ago. Until recently, a good portion of his living was made by teaching firearms training courses at his business, Judnich’s Firearms Training. Recently, he has mostly stopped teaching because he is receiving more requests for gun training for reasons with which he is not comfortable.

“They’ll say, ‘I’m looking to carry a gun,’ and I’ll say, ‘why,’ and they’ll say, ‘because of everything that’s going on in the world today,’” Judnich said.

He said he’s received too many such requests recently from people looking to arm themselves quickly because of a contentious political moment in our country. In Judnich’s mind, there should be more of a desire to be knowledgeable about firearms before using them.

Judnich doesn’t think more laws to restrict guns are needed. Instead, he said the laws we have just have too many loopholes and problems. For one, he said, when someone undergoes a background check to purchase a weapon, their mental health records are protected by HIPAA laws and cannot be reviewed. He said that many mass shooters already have a diagnosed history of mental disorder, but this loophole makes it so they are not stopped from obtaining weapons. He says that trying to change these laws would start a political firestorm.

Judnich, who has a degree in criminal justice and a long career in training, said another thing he thinks should change is that one only has to take two short courses to become a certified instructor to issue concealed carry permits. He would like to see these instructors have more knowledge and training.

“I think if you have the right to give someone the right to carry a gun, you should have the knowledge to give them a bit more,” Judnich said.

His home safety course is one that has not been easy to find patrons for. This course teaches how to safely use and store guns in the home. His most popular courses are for personal protection inside the home and personal protection outside the home. They are National Rifle Association-sanctioned classes that teach gun owners how to draw from a holster and shoot from cover, among other things.

One trend Judnich has noticed of late is rising sales of guns and ammunition.

“People are buying like crazy,” he said. “Right now, you’d be lucky to go into a store and find more than one box (of ammunition).”

President Joe Biden spoke from the White House lawn last Thursday to address executive action he plans to take on gun violence. Specifically, he hopes to ring in “ghost guns,” which are weapons that can be purchased as a kit, with no background check or serial number, and assembled at home. He said he would be requiring manufacturers to put serial numbers on the guns and “treat them as weapons.”

He also announced plans to put more restrictions on stabilizing bracelets for pistols, which make them more accurate and, he said, more lethal as a result.

“Nothing I am about to recommend infringes on the Second Amendment,” Biden said to preface his plans. “But no amendment to the Constitution is absolute.”

The president called gun violence in America an “epidemic” and said that every day 316 people on average are shot throughout the country and that 106 of them die.

Fugitive couple apprehended in Spain

MADRID, Spain — A British couple who were charged in the death of a tourist on their Key Largo-based charter boat at Molasses Reef and have been on the run from authorities for 10 years were arrested in Spain last week, multiple outlets reported.

Christopher Jones, 56, and Alison Gracey, 53, were owners of the commercial dive charter boat “Get Wet,” which capsized and sank on Dec. 18, 2011, killing 36-year-old Aimee Rhoads, who was visiting the Keys from Washington state.

The 24.5-foot vessel sank because of functional issues that had allegedly been ignored by the couple. Rhoads was trapped in the hull of the boat for a time after it began taking on water while out for a dive trip at the reef. Another passenger was also trapped in the boat as it sank, but he was airlifted to a Miami hospital and survived after being rescued by the boat’s captain.

Jones and Gracey were charged with involuntary manslaughter and making false official statements. The two have evaded authorities from both the United States Coast Guard and Interpol after being briefly detained in 2015. They were arrested days after being featured on an episode of the television program “America’s Most Wanted,” which aired last Monday.

The couple lived in Key Largo at the time of Rhoads’ death and left the country shortly after, according to reports from the time. A federal grand jury returned a sealed indictment on Oct. 18, 2012. Interpol was able to track the couple down and arrest them once before, in 2015 on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. A report from the time said they had been living and working on the Dutch island since the beginning of that year. But the couple was released on bail by a Dutch judge. The couple had their passports revoked and officials hoped they would be extradited to the United States.

In 2016, a French woman sent emails to The Key West Citizen saying that two people with names matching those of the fugitives had contacted her asking about a home rental in southern France. Having found out about their legal status, she wanted to know if they were still wanted by Interpol. The emails were forwarded to Coast Guard investigators, who believed the couple were still working through the Dutch legal system in St. Maarten.

Previous reports said that if convicted, Jones faced up to 10 years in prison, while Gracey faced eight. Both Interpol and the Coast Guard were contacted for information regarding the couple’s status, but neither one responded at press time.

The 7 Mile Bridge Run returns Saturday for the 40th installment. 9A

Key Largo group cares for small mammals on the mend. 1B

New method found for tracking Key deer fawns

BIG PINE KEY — A team of researchers from the University of Florida made a breakthrough in tracking the endangered Key deer’s behavior in a recent study, using cameras to identify fawns and where they are most abundant based on their unique spots.

Dr. Marcus Lashley, along with his colleague Dr. Mike Cove, broke from traditional methods of tracking wildlife and went with the rapidly-advancing camera technology method to compile data over several years, tracking where the deer raise their young.

Lashley said this was necessary since the Key deer are so small, they cannot use older tracking methods, such as radios.

Cameras were fastened to trees, bushes or rocks throughout the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and Lashley said they were able to identify at least 82 confirmed fawns based on the unique patterns of spots they have on their backs. Lashley said these spots are like a human’s fingerprints, no two are the same.

The number of fawns that Lashley speculated being seen could have been as high as 110, though he said they were not able to make a total population estimate for the species at this moment.

The Key deer is on the federal endangered species list and has lost large amounts of habitat due to human encroachment over time. They once lived from Marathon to Key West but are now confined mostly to Big Pine Key and No Name Key. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that between 700 and 800 live on these two islands.

Through the data collected, Lashley and his associates were able to map the Key deer’s migration habits. They found that fawns tend to prefer low-lying wetland areas where vegetation allows shelter from the hot sun, whereas mature deer are more common in the higher elevations of the islands.

Lashley has been studying deer for years, particularly of the white-tailed variety. He said the spots on a fawns back are seen throughout deer species and are usually used as a camouflage strategy to hide from predators. Despite Key deer not having any natural predators, the spots continue to be genetically inherited and can be used to track which deer comes from which population.

Deer mothers typically leave their young in a safe area during the day, then go out and forage for food, returning later to nourish the fawns. Lashley warns that if one comes across a fawn to not try to intervene.

“If you find a deer fawn that’s alone, don’t think it’s abandoned. Just leave it alone. The mother is out there finding nutrition,” Lashley said.

Unfortunately, the revelation that fawns prefer lower elevation areas means they could be more susceptible to rising sea levels. Lashley said he hopes his findings serve as a tool for conservationists to help in the effort to protect this unique species.