A new rule proposed by federal environmental officials could re-ignite a two-decades-old fight over whether cooling towers should be installed at the Salem nuclear generating stations as a way of reducing massive fish kills at the plant.
The proposal, unveiled last week, aims to protect billions of fish and aquatic life drawn into cooling water systems at power plants and factories around the country. Several environmental groups, although unhappy with the full scope of the rule, seized upon it to call on the state to require PSEG Nuclear to install cooling towers at the two nuclear units in Lower Alloways Township.
"We are disappointed that the EPA draft rules is not as strong as it should be," said Jim Walsh, eastern region director for Food & Water Watch. "Nonetheless, we call on the Department of Environmental Protection to require closed-loop cooling systems at the Salem facility, a move that will not only protect our environment, but also support sustainable commercial and recreational fishing."
The proposed rule affects more than 500 power plants, as well as other industry sectors that draw large amounts of water for their operations, including chemical and petroleum facilities and paper manufacturers. The rule stops short of mandating cooling towers at existing power plants, but gives state authorities the flexibility to decide how to protect aquatic life on a case-by-case basis.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the requirement to retrofit so-called once-through cooling systems could affect 62 of the 104 reactors in the United States. Cooling towers also figured into the fight to close Oyster Creek, with the Corzine administration ordering Exelon to install towers at the Lacey Township plant. But the company worked out a deal with the Christie administration to close within nine years without having to build the structures.
In New Jersey, PSEG owns several plants that could be affected by the rule, including its two coal-fired power plants in Mercer and Hudson counties. The two nuclear units at Salem, however, will draw the most scrutiny, in part, because environmentalists have been pushing for cooling towers there to reduce fish kills for more than 20 years.
At one point in the Florio administration, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ordered the PSEG to build cooling towers, but that decision was later reversed and the company reduced fish kills by installing screens over the plant's intakes, which draw in three billion gallons of water from the Delaware River each day. PSEG also agreed to undertake a 32-square mile marshland restoration project to help restore fisheries.
Eric Svenson, vice president for environment, health and safety for PSEG, noted the proposed rule does not mandate cooling towers, but relies on the "best professional judgment" of the staffers overseeing permitting of the facility to use the best available technology.
"I don’t think there is a scientific basis to put that type of technology on the units," Svenson said. "I don’t think it’s warranted. There are more cost-effective approaches."
PSEG, however, does have some concerns about the rule, particularly its requirement that existing power plants meet numeric mortality standards for reducing fish killed by screen intakes. "PSEG has serious concerns about whether these standards can be met reliably and economically," Svenson said.
The proposal allows flexibility in dealing with fish killed on the screen intakes, or impingement, by either demonstrating a reduction in fish mortality or by showing the intake structure meets specific design criteria. With regard to fish killed by being sucked into the power plant, or entrainment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a more flexible standard, requiring a site-specific determination to be made based on local concerns.
Environmental groups say that framework allows the state to take aggressive steps to protect its water resources.
"While EPA’s proposal gives states too much discretion, it does permit states power to do the right thing," said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "Now is the time for Gov. Christie to deliver on his promise to fix the failed cooling systems at Salem. It’s clear the law requires cooling towers, not PSEG’s failed mitigation that continues the fish slaughter."
Beyond the Salem reactors and the Hudson and Mercer coal plants, environmentalists said the rule proposal could affect the B.L. England coal-powered plant in Cape May.