New Report Highlights Need for States to Protect Aquatic Life from Destructive Power Plants

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Trey Pollard: 202.904.9187, trey.pollard@sierraclub.org
Kyle Rabin: 212.991.1067, kyle@gracelinks.org
Blair FitzGibbon: 202.503.6141, blair@fitzgibbonmedia.com

New Report Highlights Need for States to Protect Aquatic Life from Destructive Power Plants

NEW YORK, NY - A new report released today by a coalition of regional and national environmental groups underscores the need for states to ramp up their protections for the water and aquatic life that existing electric generating power plants withdraw from and discharge into lakes, rivers, harbors and estuaries. The new report, "Treading Water: How States Can Minimize the Impact of Power Plants on Aquatic Life," examines whether state agencies are prepared to institute and enforce new standards regarding the use of highly destructive power plant cooling systems.

The power industry uses more water than any other sector of the U.S. economy, withdrawing more than 200 billion gallons of water each day from the nation's waters. Nearly all of this water is used for "once-through cooling," an outdated process that uses enormous volumes of water and discharges it back into the environment at an alarmingly elevated temperature. In the process those cooling systems kill much of the aquatic life near the intake pipe and the heated discharge water alters surrounding ecosystems, compounding the damage.

"The cost of continued inaction by state governments and EPA is staggering," said Paul Gallay, President and Hudson Riverkeeper. "America's hundreds of outdated power plants destroy more than 2 billion fish and 528 billion eggs and larvae every year, including members of almost 215 endangered or threatened aquatic species, from sea turtles to shortnose sturgeon. In New York, the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s use of the Hudson for cooling water has slaughtered 1.2 billion fish and other river life annually for decades—about 3.3 million per day on average.  Switching from destructive once-through to closed-cycle cooling would protect our marine ecosystems and reap significant social and economic benefits."

In early November the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to finalize new water pollution standards for cooling water intake structures at existing power plants. However, as proposed in 2011, EPA's safeguards fail to set minimum standards for protecting aquatic ecosystems and fail to give states clear and effective guidance on how to limit the damage from cooling water intake structures. The proposed rule would place the burden on state environmental agencies to revisit 600 old power plants and determine whether they should continue to use outdated industrial cooling systems.  

"This report makes the case for action crystal clear: power plants are devastating our waterways and we have to act now," said Dalal Aboulhosn, Senior Washington Representative of the Sierra Club. "But if EPA's proposed water pollution standards are finalized in their current form, the agency will have missed a real chance to protect our waterways and instead overburden state agencies that already cannot keep up with their water pollution permitting obligations, thereby making the state regulatory process more important but less effective than ever."

The report is based on a review of permitting practices, water pollution permits and policy documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, as well as discussions with staff of more than a dozen state and federal environmental agencies and discussions with environmental organizations that have participated in permitting determinations in several states.

"Across the country hundreds of old power plants have gone on killing fish because it's cheaper than building fish-friendly cooling systems," said Wendy Wilson of the River Network. "Now, a number of states have noted the powerful evidence that our river and bays are suffering. States have the authority they need, so more of them need to stand up to the energy companies that benefit from their inaction to protect freshwater resources and healthy fish populations."

"States unfortunately have a poor track record in protecting aquatic ecosystems from the devastating impacts of power plant intakes," said Reed Super, of the Super Law Group, author of the report. "Treading Water reveals the need either for strong, clear federal standards or, if EPA continues to abdicate that responsibility, for states to step it up and fill the void to protect our waters."

The states covered in this report are broadly representative of the wide spectrum of permitting practices across the United States. At one end, California and Delaware have made it their official policy to push every power plant within their borders to finally move to closed-cycle cooling technology (although their follow-through has been lacking). At the other end, Illinois has not re-examined the cooling systems at many power plants for more than 30 years. And while states like Louisiana, Texas and Ohio re-analyze cooling systems periodically, they have signaled through public comments and permitting practices that they believe older power plants should rarely, if ever, be required to upgrade to closed-cycle systems. Other states covered in the report include Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York.

"By failing to set a strong federal rule to protect fish and aquatic ecosystems, EPA also imposes a heavy burden on citizen groups and community organizations," said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Peter Harrison. "Members of the public would have to mobilize every time their state regulators planned to renew a water pollution permit for an outdated power plant, forced to engage in technical administrative proceedings against powerful interests that are resistant to modernization. A strong federal rule would avoid this expensive, fragmented result."

"Given the power industry's current heavy reliance on water resources, water-friendlier electricity generation is a key part of a more sustainable energy future," said Kyle Rabin of GRACE Communications Foundation, which funded the new report. "With changing precipitation and temperature patterns brought on by climate change, collaboration among planners, managers, policymakers and state and federal agencies is a necessity if we are to ensure adequate water resources not only for energy production, but also for food production, municipal, commercial and industrial uses."

The report identifies best practices from around the country to help state officials compare their industrial cooling water policies against those of other states. The report is also designed to give concerned citizens and environmental organizations the facts they need to advocate for protection of America’s lakes, rivers, oceans and estuaries.

VIEW THE REPORT

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The Sierra Club is the oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. It was founded on May 28, 1892 in San Francisco, California by the well-known conservationist and preservationist John Muir, who became its first president. The Sierra Club has hundreds of thousands of members in chapters located throughout the US, and is affiliated with Sierra Club Canada.

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