On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized standards to try to protect the estimated 2.1 billion fish, crabs, and shrimp that are killed annually by being drawn into cooling water systems at large power plants and factories. The long-delayed rule stops short of requiring the roughly 1,065 existing facilities, about half power plants and half factories, to use less water from rivers, lakes, and oceans or to install specific new technologies.
“EPA is making it clear that if you have cooling water intakes you have to look at the impact on aquatic life in local waterways and take steps to minimize that impact,” Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water, said in a statement.
It is common for thermal power plants to use local water sources to cool and condense the pressurized steam used to power their turbines. The pipes that draw in this water can pin aquatic life against intake structures (impingement) or suck them into systems (entrainment). Under the new EPA rules, companies must implement steps to decrease the amount of fish killed, and can choose one of seven options for meeting “best technology available” requirements for reducing deaths of fish populations. The standards were met with skepticism from some environmental groups.
“We are deeply disappointed,” Steve Fleischli, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) water program, said in a statement. “EPA has essentially abdicated its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act and passed the buck to the states, most of which have shown they don’t have the capacity or the will to safeguard our waterways from these sources. This rule will do little to protect America’s fisheries from the enormous impact of power plants.”
The EPA estimated that the rule would cost $275 million a year, most of which would be borne by power companies. These companies have been skeptical of the costs of the regulations over the course of the 20-year effort to finalize the standards, but seemed willing to accommodate the latest version.
“Based upon our initial review of the rule, we are pleased that EPA has avoided imposing a categorical one-size-fits-all approach to compliance; has embraced significant elements of flexibility; and has acknowledged the importance of weighing costs with environmental protection,” Tom Kuhn, the president of Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric companies, said in a statement.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) immediately criticized the rule, saying he wants to overturn it.
“The EPA has released another rule that threatens the affordability and reliability of America’s electricity, and I am committed to ensuring that Congress weighs in,” Inhofe said. “I am working with my Senate colleagues and plan to use my privilege under the Congressional Review Act to force debate and an up-or-down vote on this rule.”
Many of the plants subject to the new rule are using once-through cooling systems that draw water directly from a source and then discharge it back into the source at a higher temperature. Other forms of cooling systems have existed for decades, such as closed-cycle systems that recycle the cooled water. According to the NRDC, virtually all of the gas-fired power plants and the majority of coal-fired plants built in the last 30 years use closed-cycle cooling. This type of plant generally reduces water usage by about 95 percent when compared with once-through cooling and can lead to a 98 percent reduction in environmental damage caused by intake structures.