Rob Weltner grew up on the south shore of Long Island so the South Shore Estuary looms large in his life.
“Ever since I was walking I was always by the water or in the water or under the water,” says Rob. “Life for me revolves around the bay and the ocean and what’s in it.”
For over a decade, Rob has been an environmental champion for this critical coastal aquatic habitat. A former contractor who worked at several metropolitan-area power plants, he brings to the table some unique experiences including what he observed regarding one particular threat to the estuary: an aging power plant’s massive water withdrawal via antiquated once-through cooling water intake structures.
For Rob, who now heads up the volunteer non-profit Operation SPLASH, a certain power plant stands out from his contractor days: the E.F. Barrett facility in Island Park, which also happens to be three villages away from where he grew up. While working at the Barrett plant, Rob witnessed the devastating impact that an outdated cooling water intake system can have on aquatic life.
On one occasion, Rob saw hundreds of horseshoe crabs trapped against the facility’s cooling water intake screen. He and a few colleagues rescued as many of the prehistoric crabs as they could by raking them off the screen and tossing them back into the bay as far from the intakes as possible. How many crabs were killed or injured wasn’t clear to Rob, but what was painfully obvious was that this amazing creature – which has survived for tens of millions of years – was no match for the thirsty power plant.
While horseshoe crabs are not endangered (yet), there are a variety of concerns about the future of this primeval species, most notably the loss or degradation of its habitat. “It’s a shame,” Rob points out, given the arthropod’s unique biological and ecological importance.
According to a 2005 New York State wildlife conservation report:
The horseshoe crab is an interesting species because it has evolved little in the last 250 million years. It is used widely in medical research, harvested as eel bait, and its eggs are an important spring food source for migratory shore birds.
Interestingly, sampling studies conducted from February 2003 to February 2004 – a handful of years after Rob’s experience – by the Barrett plant’s owner makes only a passing reference to horseshoe crabs but they do reveal the wide range of other species impacted by the once-through cooling systems. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), these studies indicated that approximately 1.2 billion fish eggs and larvae were entrained (sucked in through the intake screens and into the system), and approximately 178,000 fish were impinged on (or trapped against) the screens by the pressure of the intake flow. A DEC fact sheet includes the following information regarding the species found in the sampling studies:
Thirty-three taxonomic groups of fish were collected in entrainment sampling, with five taxa (cunner, bay anchovy, tautog, windowpane, and searobin) comprising more than 90 percent of the sample. Fifty-seven species of fish were collected in impingement sampling. Atlantic silverside, Atlantic menhaden, mummichog, striped killifish, and winter flounder comprised more than 92 percent of the sample. In addition, a total of 1,394 individuals of selected macroinvertebrate species were also collected in the impingement monitoring at Barrett. Blue crab was the dominant species impinged, both numerically and by weight.
According to the DEC, of the five Long Island central station power plants, Barrett ranks first in regards to annual impingement. The DEC’s findings show that the most recent estimates place Barrett within the top 10 power plants in New York State for impingement and entrainment.
“These numbers speak volumes,” Rob affirms.
This is why DEC is proposing to modify Barrett’s State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit based on the Department’s determination that the plant’s owner must install a closed-cycle cooling system, which would reduce the amount of water being withdrawn by approximately 95% (and subsequently would decrease the number of fish destroyed by 95%).
“My hat’s off to the DEC for having the guts to make this decision regarding Barrett,” Rob says. “They stood their ground and made the correct decision.”
While the DEC may be on the right track, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to have fallen off course. After issuing its long-awaited proposed rule – under section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act for all existing power generating facilities and existing manufacturing and industrial facilities – the EPA came under fire by several of the nation’s leading environmental groups which blasted the rule as being ineffective and criticized the agency for caving in to industry interests.
Rob is concerned that the EPA’s proposed rule could undermine broader efforts to get plants to retrofit to closed-cycle cooling. “I'm very disappointed in the EPA for not standing up to the industry. The proposed rule is weak and not only will it do nothing to protect the local environment it will also adversely impact local economies with water-dependent recreational businesses. I'm particularly worried what the EPA’s proposed rule means for plants like Barrett because, without strong direction from the EPA, DEC and other state agencies won’t always have the fortitude to stand up and do the right thing.”
There is a certain degree of irony from Rob’s perspective. “On Long Island, all fishermen -- commercial and recreational -- have strict limits on the size and number of fish we can take from the water. If they violate those limits, they get heavy fines and possible jail time. Yet these power plants get a free pass to kill all kinds of marine life without restrictions all for the sake of the power company’s profit margin. How is this allowed to happen? It’s just a tremendous waste of life. Anything we can do to help to improve the various fish stocks should be a no brainer. In the long run it will pay off for the various species, the health of the estuary and the local economy. The power companies can afford to make these changes. What society can’t afford is to allow these power companies to get away with business-as-usual.”
A close encounter of a different kind: While Rob Weltner’s up close experience with power plant cooling intake structures was downright extraordinary, the encounter that scuba diver John Vincent had last year was simply terrifying. Vincent was sucked into the cooling water intake pipe at the Scattergood power plant in Playa del Rey, California. Fortunately, he lived to tell his story and in the process, helped to bring some attention to this lesser known environmental impact caused by aging power plants.