All Pain, No Gain: New York Power Plants Kill Fish Even When Not in Use

Environmental damage is usually portrayed as an inconvenient byproduct of the fulfillment of some crucial societal need, like blowing the top off of a coal-rich mountain range so we can power our air conditioners as soon as we break a sweat, our televisions to watch “Jersey Shore,” and our computers to share funny cat videos.

Of course, not every need is equal, but so goes the popular line of thinking.  We've become accustomed to this one-way tradeoff, but when we learn that an industry is flat-out wasting a resource for no discernible purpose, one might think it'd be easy to muster up a little outrage.

Well, here’s an opportunity to test that theory.

A couple weeks ago, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) quietly released a new report (PDF) on the environmental impacts of power plants that rely on once-through cooling.  Specifically, the report tests the previously-untested assumption that there is a direct, proportional relationship between how much electricity a power plant generates, the volume of water it withdraws for cooling, and the resulting harm caused to aquatic life.

The assumption is that if a once-through cooled power plant is generating electricity, then it is withdrawing water and sucking in critters from an adjacent lake, river or estuary.  When the same power plant is not generating electricity, then it is not withdrawing water and not harming any critters.

If only the truth were that logical.

It turns out that many of New York’s power plants are withdrawing cooling water – and in the process injuring or killing aquatic life – even when they are not generating any electricity.  For example, the Port Jefferson Power Station on Long Island used 27 percent of its electric generating capacity in 2008, yet operated its cooling water system at about 75 percent of capacity.

In some cases, these power plants are running their cooling water systems to ensure that they can “ramp up” quickly and generate electricity should demand suddenly rise, while financial reasons might influence other plant operators to keep the pumps running.

These infrequently-operating power plants run most when the demand for electricity is highest – late spring and summer – exactly the time when many fish species spawn.  That means there are plenty of eggs and larvae floating around that can be drawn into the plants' cooling systems where they are injured or killed.

There’s no way for the electric industry to spin this story; killing fish while not generating electricity does not help to power our shiny new high-def flat-screens.  Power plant owners are going to have to first invest in some easy-to-install technologies that will cut their plants' water use, then get with the 40-year-old program and install closed-cycle cooling, already.