Super Advocate vs. Weak EPA on Power Plant Rule

Having devoted a considerable number of words to the important but underreported issue of outdated power plant cooling water intake systems and the ecological havoc they wreak on rivers, lakes and oceans, we thought we'd check in with one of the central figures behind the issue: Reed Super. For over a decade, Super, a public interest environmental attorney, has tirelessly championed the cause of reining in the nation’s fish-devouring power plants whose financially – and thereby politically – influential owners have long resisted meeting Clean Water Act cooling water intake requirements.

Super was front and center when the matter landed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, after the New York-based nonprofit Riverkeeper led a national alliance of environmental groups (and worked closely with a coalition of six states) in a 2004 legal challenge to the weak cooling water intake regulations proposed earlier that year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, Super spearheaded the challenge. The alliance countered the highly questionable economic and ecological claims of the power companies, most notably Entergy, owner of the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant. Indian Point’s cooling system withdraws up to 2.5 billion gallons of water each day from the Hudson River and, in the process, kills billions of fish annually. (See this 2007 study by Pisces International Ltd.)

Nationwide power plant withdrawals, which add up to more than 135 trillion gallons per year, kill trillions of fish and other aquatic organisms, particularly small, fragile eggs and larvae, although for Super, the issue is far broader than the number of gallons of water withdrawn and the critters impacted. The overall impacts that these plants have on aquatic ecology–and the complex, sometimes fragile, food chain–from the New York Harbor to the California Coast and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico are what concerns Super the most. He knows that our society and economy depend on healthy ecosystems; a critical point that is lost on many people including policymakers and political leaders.

Super points out that reining in power plant water withdrawals also has potential public health benefits. “That’s because the requirement to upgrade a plant’s cooling water intake structures quite often encourages the owner to convert to a highly-efficient combined cycle power plant which would reduce air emissions,” said Super. He also notes that the cooling water intake issue is heating up at a time when the energy sector is at a crossroads and renewables and energy efficiency are becoming increasingly economically viable.

Super spent the better part of the past summer writing comments (the final version was just shy of 200 pages) on the EPA’s latest proposed regulations which the agency released in the spring. These draft regulations – which inexplicably toss out the “best technology” option of closed-cycle cooling – were a big disappointment to the environmental community and were actually weaker than the proposed rule issued during the Bush Administration.

“It appears that EPA’s senior leadership may not have closely read the materials their staff developed for the rule,” said Super about the proposed regulations. “If they had, they would have seen that closed-cycle cooling can be readily and affordably implemented at the nation’s fleet of power plants, which would not only protect the aquatic environment, but would also create sorely needed construction jobs and provide an economic boost, while maintaining grid reliability. The Office of Management and Budget then took EPA’s poor rule and made it worse, shortly before the proposed regulation was released for public comment.”

Given the rule’s numerous flaws, I asked Super how the EPA’s proposed rule fails to protect fish and other aquatic life. Here’s what he said:

  1. The rule fails to set uniform national standards for entrainment and instead leaves the decision to be set by state permit writers on a case-by-case basis (even though four decades of experience has proven that states are incapable of making those decisions in the absence of clear national regulatory standards).
  2. The rule does not require existing power plants to use closed-cycle cooling, which is a feasible, affordable, technology for protecting fish and is already required for new facilities.
  3. The rule sets an unworkable standard for impingement (based on the percentage of impinged fish that ultimately die from impingement, rather than requiring plants to reduce their intake velocity, which would prevent most fish from being impinged in the first place.
  4. Through use of the innocuous sounding term “species of concern,” the rule authorizes state permit writers to completely ignore fish species that the state does not believe to be important.

Nevertheless, Super remains hopeful, saying, “While this is a classic example of Washington putting politics above science and common sense, EPA has a second chance to do it right when the agency finalizes the rule in July 2012.”

And if the EPA falls short?

Then it will have to answer to Super and Riverkeeper – and a long list of environmental advocates – who are determined to end the senseless aquatic destruction and are working to bring about a clean energy future that safeguards our water resources.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Check out this video to hear Reed Super and Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay discuss the aquatic destruction caused by antiquated once-through cooling systems.

Reed Super was among those who contributed to a comprehensive Sierra Club report about fish-killing power plants.

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