No, the Other Power Plant Rule (the one about killing fish)

 I don’t know about you, but I'm a big fan of eating and breathing and of wildlife with fully-functioning reproductive organs.  So last month, when the EPA ignored questionable doomsday energy predictions from the power industry and its allies and instead told the industry to clamp down on the toxins being spewed out of its dirtiest plants, I was in great spirits.

Being a multitasker at heart, the EPA isn’t just focused on what nasty contaminants come out of power plants, it’s also concerned with what they're sucking in, namely fish.  But a more recent proposed rule intended to tackle that problem lacks the inspiration of its predecessor.

A draft of this bureaucratically-monikered “316(b) Rule” has just been released in the EPA’s bid to limit the amount of aquatic life that power plants kill and injure every year.  How is it possible that power plants can kill wildlife?  Those that rely on antiquated “once-through cooling” can do so in three different ways:

  1. Trapped: Larger organisms, like juvenile and mature fish, can become trapped on screens intended to keep them out of the power plant’s cooling water intake system.  The result is injury or death.
  2. Sucked: Eggs, larvae and other small aquatic organisms – the base of the food chain – are swept into the cooling system where they are exposed to high temperatures and toxic chemicals, and are battered about by mechanical equipment.  Few survive the journey.
  3. Overheated: Water that has run its course through the once-through cooling system is far warmer than it was when it was drawn in by the power plant.  The overheated water – referred to as “thermal pollution” – can further harm fish and other aquatic life.

The damage that over 500 U.S. power plants – including both fossil-fuel and nuclear facilities – cause to fish and other aquatic life in the nation’s lakes, rivers and estuaries is profound.  Billions of aquatic organisms are needlessly killed or injured every year and trillions of gallons of water are overheated.

Leading up to the release of the EPA’s draft rule, much of the power industry bellowed warnings about a nightmarish energy future should the agency finally enforce this section of the 40-year-old Clean Water Act, just as they did before last month’s Clean Air Act rule was released.

But this time the industry got what it wanted: the status quo.

The EPA could have required that existing power plants relying on once-through cooling upgrade to closed-cycle cooling systems, which recycle water and reduce the destruction of aquatic life by 95 to 98 percent.  New power plants are already required to install closed-cycle cooling systems, often identifiable by tall cooling towers or smaller sets of cooling cells.

Unfortunately, the agency buckled to industry pressure and proposed to continue with the current process in which overburdened and underfunded state authorities are responsible for reviewing each and every power plant’s permit to determine which plants need to be upgraded to closed-cycle cooling.  Power plant owners can simply overwhelm state permit agencies with waves of engineering and financial documents in an endless delay tactic.

As attorney Reed Super explains, “EPA has the ability to set national standards that would protect the environment with readily-available and affordable technology, but has instead abdicated the responsibility to state agencies who are simply not equipped to make these decisions alone.”

Initial industry reaction has been disjointed when it comes to the basics of the draft rule. Some power companies are generally pleased, while a utility association is confused as to why killing aquatic life is considered a problem, and the nation’s top nuclear trade association thinks that this weak draft rule is a “blanket requirement” forcing the installation of closed-cycle cooling systems that will close “scores of power plants.”

Of course, there is nothing close to a blanket rule calling for closed-cycle cooling.  And as EPA’s analyses point out, the draft rule would cause just a fractional loss of electricity-generating capacity, an amount that would be completely offset by new or repowered plants coming online.  Dare I ask, maybe renewables and energy efficiency could help to fill some of that small gap?

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has been the leading voice of reason when explaining the legal and scientific justifications for the agency’s rules protecting the nation’s air and water resources.  But it’s hard to watch as the EPA makes big strides in regulating toxins injected into the air by the nation’s power plants one month, and then chooses not to reign in the amount of aquatic life that power plants destroy in the next.

The draft rule weighs in at a dense 115 pages, so the 90-day comment period (during which everyone is encouraged to weigh in by July 19) is bound to uncover some controversial details.  But at first glance, the leaders in this EPA-phobic Congress who called for a “flexible” cooling system rule – and by “flexible” they meant “weak” – got exactly what they wanted.

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