Power Plant Cooling Systems Threaten Aquatic Life

Environmental groups are up in arms over what they say are weak standards proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the impact of power plants on fish and other aquatic life.  According to organizations like the Sierra Club, standards put forward by the federal agency earlier this spring and up for public comment through July 19th will do little to protect fish from a major threat to their survival: cooling systems that take in water from streams and lakes across the US, in the process pulverizing any aquatic animals swept up in the current.  Environmental groups are urging the EPA to adopt stronger standards that will help protect wildlife.

Every day US power plants suck up an astonishing 200 billion gallons of water to use in their cooling systems.  That means the power utility industry uses more water than any other industrial source in the country.  The biggest offenders are coal and nuclear plants, which require large amounts of water to cool their interiors and which are often old enough to have escaped having to comply with comparatively recent water conservation standards.  These older plants are responsible for most of the power plant industry’s water consumption, and for most of the fish deaths. 

The law already requires younger power plants to minimize environmental damage with a closed cooling system, which uses an on-site water cooling tower instead of sucking up water from nearby lakes or rivers.  The Sierra Club argues all power plants should be required to upgrade to closed cooling systems or other designs that achieve the same goals for conservation.  Otherwise the industry will continue to kill billions of fish and other aquatic animals. 

Large fish are drawn into power plant cooling systems and killed when they are smashed against intake screens within.  Smaller species and fish larvae fit through the screens, but are then swept into power plant turbines where they are literally chopped to bits.  After years of preventable fish deaths, a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the aquatic habitats conservation group Riverkeeper forced the EPA to re-examine power plant standards and propose new rules for existing plants.  However the agency has been hesitant to require utilities to make changes, as the coal and nuclear industries argue upgrading to closed systems would be too costly.

A new rule proposed this spring by the EPA would do little if anything to protect fish at most power plants.  The new standard largely leaves it up to individual state agencies to determine how fish deaths will be prevented, rather than creating a uniform national standard.  State agencies often lack the resources or the commitment to implement new policies, and in many cases aren’t likely to take action unless forced to do so by the EPA.  Most of these agencies are unlikely to require that power plants upgrade to closed cooling systems—and that’s good news for coal and nuclear companies that don’t want to pay for the retrofits. 

“Under intense pressure from powerful industry interests,” says the Sierra Club, “the EPA opted not to require meaningful technology requirements that would protect ecosystems. Instead the EPA’s proposal offers little-to-no improvement in the technologies required to protect fish and wildlife.”

The Sierra Club is urging its supporters and wildlife enthusiasts across the country to comment on the EPA’s plan and ask the federal agency to take a stronger stance.  Public comments can by submitted online, and will be accepted until July 19th.  Public comment periods are required by law for any new regulation proposed by the EPA, and are a way of gauging support or opposition to proposed environmental standards. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/mulad/4652503603/

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