Clean Air Task Force: EPA rule could perpetuate massive fish kills

BOSTON, Feb. 4, 2004 — If technology exists that can reduce or eliminate massive fish kills and habitat destruction in our nation’s waters caused by power plants by 90 percent or more at minimal cost, should the government require it? That is the question the Clean Air Task Force is asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding a rule announced this month.

The stakes of the EPA decision are outlined in a report authored by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and released Feb. 2 by more than a dozen environmental organizations from around the nation. Entitled Wounded Waters, the report documents the large footprint of power production on both water quantity and quality, exploring the different types of power plant cooling systems currently in use and their environmental impact.

“EPA has an opportunity live up to its name and require modest upgrades at power plants that are not using intake-reducing technology,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. “It would be a shame if number crunchers at OMB and not the professional staff at EPA made such important decisions about protecting our nation’s waters.”

In 2001, EPA’s professional staff recommended a rule that would require power companies to adopt technologies that reduce their water use by 90 percent or more in sensitive habitats, noting that they were cost-effective.

However, John Graham, the Bush Administration’s environmental rule reviewer at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), overruled EPA staff recommendations in favor of a less stringent proposal.

“There is still time for EPA to do the right thing,” said Cohen. “Administrator Leavitt can and must resist political pressure from the electric power industry and mandate that grandfathered power plants deploy readily available technology to reverse a half century of damage to our nation’s waters.”

The impact of power plant water use is severe, the Clean Air Task Force maintains. According to the group’s report, withdrawing and discharging hundreds of billions of gallons of water per day results in:

— Direct kills of billions of fish and fish eggs through “entrainment” in water intake structures. On New York’s Hudson River, for example, a cluster of power plants were found to reduce nearly 80 percent of certain fish species in certain years. From Delaware to Florida to Texas, annual recreational and commercial fish losses from power plant intakes have been estimated at tens of millions per year.

— Discharge of water at temperatures as high as 60 degrees hotter than intake temperatures — threatening fish and river ecosystems. Large temperature differences can help destroy vegetation, increase algae growth, deplete oxygen and eliminate micro-organisms on which fish feed. EPA found that hot discharge water from the Brayton Point coal plant on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border contributed to an 87 percent reduction in finfish such as winter flounder in Mt. Hope Bay — leading it to mandate a 94 percent reduction in water withdrawal, significantly tighter than the standard required under its proposed rule.

— Toxic chemical discharges. To keep boilers and cooling systems free of mineral and microbial build up, power companies employ millions of gallons of chlorine and other chemicals. Discharge waters from these sources can contain a range of toxics, including chlorine, nickel and copper.

Fortunately, there are technologies that can avoid or minimize impacts and reduce water use. Closed-cycle, or recirculating, systems reduce water withdrawals by 90 percent or more and can significantly reduce harmful plant discharges. This technology is neither exotic nor expensive and is used in 47 percent of existing power plants today. Dry-cooling is another method that avoids significant water intake, and its cost and benefits should be further analyzed.

Wounded Waters clearly illustrates the need for power plants to modernize their water intake structures,” said Ellen Baum, report author and ecosystem scientist with the Clean Air Task Force. “The impact on local ecosystems is simply too great for the federal government to allow power plants to place such a heavy and unnecessary burden on water bodies.”

The cost of implementing these technological upgrades is minimal, the group said. The EPA’s own figures suggest that mandating recirculating cooling on all plants would result in increased power costs to average residential customers of well under a dollar per month.

The Bottom Line: What EPA Should Do

To protect America’s rivers and other aquatic ecosystems, the Clean Air Task Force said that Administrator Leavitt should:

— Require all power plants to adopt recirculating cooling technologies over a reasonable period of time;

— Require case-by-case analysis to determine whether more stringent measures such as dry cooling measures, are required.

Source: The Clean Air Task Force, a national, non-profit organization dedicated to restoring clean air and healthy environments through scientific research, public education and legal advocacy.

Wounded Waters is available at

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