Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Enviros Oppose EPA's New Proposed Cooling Water Intake Rule

Mar 28: As required by the Clean Water Act (CWA) and pursuant to a settlement agreement, U.S. EPA is proposing for public comment standards to protect billions of fish and other aquatic organisms drawn each year into cooling water systems at large power plants and factories. The proposal, based on Section 316(b) of CWA, would establish a common sense framework, putting a premium on public input and flexibility. 
    The proposed rule is one of the Republican designated, high profile EPA rulemakings which have been targeted for extensive oversight. Late last year, Representative Fred Upton (R-MI) and Chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee called on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to provide greater transparency as the Agency considers rules for cooling water intake structures at existing electric generation and manufacturing facilities. He said, "Given that this rulemaking has the potential to affect more than 400 power plants throughout the country and could impact energy supply and reliability, I am concerned about the direction of the proposal and its timing. The potential retrofit costs could be substantial ($200-300 million per unit for coal and $700 million to $1 billion for nuclear power plants) and some coal steam generators may not have the space necessary for the installation of cooling towers and other associated equipment. This could result in the retirement of some of these generators." He called on EPA to allow 180 days at minimum for the public to digest and prepare comments for a rule of this magnitude [See WIMS 12/8/10]. 

    Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water said, "This proposal establishes a strong baseline level of protection and then allows additional safeguards for aquatic life to be developed through a rigorous site-specific analysis, an approach that ensures the most up to date technology available is being used. It puts implementation analysis in the hands of the permit writers, where requirements can be tailored to the particular facility. The public's comments will be instrumental in shaping safeguards for aquatic life and to build a commonsense path forward. The input we receive will make certain that we end up with a flexible and effective rule to protect the health of our waters and ecosystems."

    Safeguards against impingement will be required for all facilities above a minimum size; closed-cycle cooling systems may also be required on a case by case basis when, based on thorough site-specific analysis by permitting authorities, such requirements are determined to be appropriate. EPA is proposing the regulation as a result of a settlement agreement with Riverkeeper, Inc. and other environmental groups [See WIMS 1/26/07, WIMS 4/2/09].

    EPA indicates that for "fish impingement"
(i.e. being pinned against screens or other parts of a cooling water intake structure), existing facilities that withdraw at least 25 percent of their water exclusively for cooling purposes and have a design intake flow of greater than 2 million gallons per day (MGD) would be required to reduce fish impingement under the proposed regulations. To ensure flexibility, the owner or operator of the facility will be able to choose one of two options for meeting best technology available requirements for reducing impingement. They may conduct monitoring to show the specified performance standards for impingement mortality of fish and shellfish have been met, or they may demonstrate to the permitting authority that the intake velocity meets the specified design criteria. EPA estimates that more than half of the facilities that could be impacted by this proposed rule already employ readily available technologies that are likely to put them into compliance with the proposed standard.

    For "fish entrainment"
(i.e. being drawn into cooling water systems and affected by heat, chemicals or physical stress), EPA is proposing a site-specific determination to be made based on local concerns and on the unique circumstances of each facility. The proposed rule establishes requirements for the facility owner to conduct comprehensive studies and develop other information as part of the permit application, and then establishes a public process, with opportunity for public input, by which the appropriate technology to reduce entrainment mortality would be implemented at each facility after considering site-specific factors.

    EPA indicates that because new units can incorporate the most efficient, best-performing technology directly into the design stage of the project, thus lowering costs and avoiding constraints associated with technology that has already been locked in, the proposed rule would require closed-cycle cooling (cooling towers) for new units at existing facilities, as is already required for new facilities. The public will be able to comment on the proposal upon its publication in the Federal Register. EPA will conduct a 90 day comment period, and will carefully consider those comments before taking final action on the proposal. The administrator must take final action by July 27, 2012.
    The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Riverkeeper issued a release saying, "The proposed rule, released this evening (March 28), was supposed to modernize the way power plants take in and release water used for cooling. Instead, EPA will leave it up to state agencies to figure out requirements for plants, but decades of experience have shown that states lack the resources and expertise to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis and have complained to EPA of the extreme burden of having to do so.

    Riverkeeper's Executive Director, Paul Gallay said, "We expected more out of the EPA to protect the country's waterways from power plants' destructive impacts. A case-by-case approach will simply not work. Instead, it will continue an endless cycle of paperwork and litigation that will leave water bodies across the country unprotected and countless species at risk." The groups said, "In the absence of a national cooling water rule for nearly 40 years, the country's waterways have been subjected to case-by-case determinations by individual permit writers, typically state agencies, exercising 'best professional judgment' when deciding what cooling system a plant can use." In 2001, EPA identified closed-cycle recirculating cooling systems as the best technology available for new power plants to use, but this did not extend to existing plants.

    The groups said, with nearly 500 U.S. power plants still relying on the "antiquated and destructive, once-through cooling system," each plant can withdraw at least 50 million (and often, more than a billion) gallons of cooling water. This water goes through a condenser where it absorbs heat from the boiler steam, and then is discharged back into the water at higher temperatures. Not only does this super-heated water kill marine life but billions of fish are sucked in with the water and killed with this system. Environmental groups want all power and manufacturing plants, new or old, to use closed-cycle cooling systems. This would generally reduce that amount of water taken in by 95 percent when compared with once-through cooling, leaving trillions of gallons of water untouched every year and fish out of cooling systems. Some plants have voluntarily moved to this system but other still refuse to make the move.

    Reed Super, an attorney representing Riverkeeper and others, who has worked on the cooling water rule since 2000 said, "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. Unfortunately, EPA's proposal will perpetuate the unacceptable status quo that has allowed antiquated plants to withdraw nearly 100 trillion gallons from our waters each year and indiscriminately kill fish and wildlife, instead of recycling their cooling water as modern plants have for the last three decades."

    Access a release from EPA (click here). Access EPA's Cooling Water Intake Structure website for additional information (click here). Access a release from the environmental organizations (click here).
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