The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed cooling water rule will allow power plants and other large industrial facilities to continue destroying billions of fish and overheating trillions of gallons of water from the nation’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and marine waters.
The proposed rule, released this evening, 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.
“We expected more out of the EPA to protect the country’s waterways from power plants’ destructive impacts,” said Riverkeeper’s Executive Director, Paul Gallay. “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.”
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.
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.
“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,” said Reed Super, an attorney representing Riverkeeper and others, who has worked on the cooling water rule since 2000. “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.”
Today’s proposed rule, under public review for the next 90 days, results from a 2004 lawsuit by Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Instead of moving toward modernizing America’s power plants and protecting our water resources, the draft rule moves us backward,” said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “ EPA has chosen the path of least resistance by caving into industry pressure and punting this issue to state agencies that too often lack the resources and the will to stand up to industry on this issue.”