A Florida teen recently made headlines when he decided to hitch a spontaneous, once-in-a-lifetime jaunt on the back of a 50,000-pound whale shark. The massive fish, classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, unsuspectingly surfaced near the boat he was on. As the teen’s stunt rightfully draws scrutiny, (along with tens of thousands of views on YouTube), for harassing the world’s largest fish, under the surface and out of view, billions of other fish and aquatic life are harmed and even killed every year by the nation’s conventional power plants. No doubt more people know about this kid’s impulsive stunt than the fact that America’s nuclear and fossil-fueled plants continue to injure and destroy a wide range of aquatic life – from fish eggs to sea turtles to seals every day – in part due to the failure of the US Environmental Protection Agency to issue strong standards in a timely manner; by the way, EPA just missed yet another deadline.
Many people know that power plants are a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gasses. However, fewer realize that a single power plant may withdraw hundreds of millions or billions of gallons of water every day, destroying millions of adult fish and billions of fish eggs and larvae in a single year. And that the shores of some of the country’s most iconic, irreplaceable and ecologically rich waterways – including the Delaware, Hudson and Mississippi Rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes – are home to numerous fish-killing plants.
Nationwide, the once-through cooling water-intake systems on outdated power plants kill more than 2 billion fish, crabs and shrimp every year, and more than 528 billion eggs and larvae that serve as the basis of the aquatic food chain. (For a better idea on how these cooling water systems work, check out GRACE’s cutting-edge animation and Sierra Club’s popular animation by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore. This 2011 Sierra Club report is another excellent resource.)
According to public interest environmental attorney Reed Super, the EPA estimates that the fish and invertebrates killed by power plant intakes include as many as 215 species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered. The toll includes Atlantic and Shortnose Sturgeons, unique populations of Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Trout, and at least three species of sea turtles: the Green Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle and Kemp’s Ridley Turtle. These animals are not only unique; they also play critical ecological roles and serve as barometers for the health of their respective habitats.
In 1972, Congress ordered the EPA to set rules that would require power plants to use the “best technology available” in order to minimize the adverse environmental impact of their cooling systems. Flash forward four decades and the agency has failed to set clear rules for the cooling systems at more than 600 old power plants. Over the past forty years, federal and state regulators have made decisions about the cooling systems at old plants on a case-by-case basis, in a process referred to as a “best technology available” or BTA determination. Unfortunately, after 40 years of bureaucratic paralysis and continued decimation of the nation’s fisheries, hundreds of the power plants that Congress had in mind in 1972 — plants that are now 40, 50 or 60 years old — still use antiquated, once-through cooling systems.
There is some good news. Since 1972, the power industry has largely stopped building once-through cooling systems at new power plants. For decades, almost every new power plant in America has been built with a “closed-cycle” cooling system. Instead of taking in thousands of gallons of water every second of every day, closed-cycle systems recycle the same cooling water many times. Closed-cycle cooling reduces water use and fish kills by more than 95 percent. No other technology or operation measures approach this level of performance and environmental protection. Therefore, in 2001, EPA made closed-cycle cooling mandatory for all new power plants (with some very limited exceptions). Since 2001, however, progress has stalled. And the EPA’s proposed new standards for the cooling systems at existing power plants – which were supposed to be finalized in late June but were delayed once again – fall extremely short of what is needed to protect endangered species, fisheries and ecosystems. (If the delay leads to a stronger rule that forces power plants to bring their cooling water intake systems into the 21st Century, then it will have been worth the wait.)
There are many reasons to take interest in this important environmental regulatory and enforcement issue. But what can we do about this ecological harm besides letting our local, state and federal officials know that we are concerned about the needless destruction?
Admittedly this isn’t an easy issue to get people interested in because some might doubt that they can make any difference. While understandable, it’s far from true. Perhaps the poster child issue for the water/energy nexus, power plants’ seemingly unquenchable thirst for cooling water – and the subsequent destruction of aquatic life – can be confronted through energy efficiency and conservation as well as greater reliance on renewable energy, actions in which Americans can partake. The less we rely on conventional power plants with once-through cooling systems, the less those plants will need to run which, in many cases, means that less cooling water will be withdrawn thereby reducing the impact on aquatic life. In addition, people can spread the word to others once they learn about these senseless fish kills; that’s not a small contribution!
If you are as enthralled by aquatic life as the Florida teen but prefer to show your enthusiasm in a less harassing manner, then jump on energy efficiency and renewables instead and make them a big part of your life.