Cooling-Tower Controversy Heats Up at Power Plants, Refinery

Green groups petition state agencies to require towers at three sites, reduce massive fish kills

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Frustrated by state agencies’ inaction, a coalition of conservation organizations wants regulatory officials to require that cooling towers be built to reduce massive fish kills at two at two big power plants in New Jersey and a refinery in Delaware.

In letters to the heads of the environmental agencies in both states, the groups last week criticized the fact that the three facilities are continuing to operate under expired permits, one of which ran out more than a decade ago.

The two plants in New Jersey are the Salem nuclear generating station in South Jersey and the Mercer coal plant in Hamilton Township, both of which are owned by PSEG Power, a subsidiary of the Public Service Enterprise Group.

The issue is one of the most contentious and potentially costly facing power plants and industrial facilities around the nation, not just in New Jersey and Delaware.

When it first unveiled the draft standard to require cooling towers at facilities with an impact on fisheries two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it could affect 1,200 facilities, costing them $384 million a year apiece. The proposal, yet to be finished, has drawn heated opposition from the energy industry and others.

In the case of the Salem nuclear power plants, the controversy stretches back nearly three decades to the days of former Gov. Jim Florio’s administration. Then-Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Judith Yaskin ordered cooling towers to installed at Salem — at a cost at that time estimated to be $2 billion — citing a study that found the plant killed more fish each year than commercial fishermen harvested from Delaware Bay.

Fish and other organisms are killed when they are sucked into the plant along with massive amounts of water to keep the units from overheating. If the proposed EPA standard is adopted, the units would have to install new systems involving so-called closed-cycle cooling towers, a practice that draws less water from rivers and bays and harms fewer fish.

Scott Weiner, who succeeded Yaskin as DEP commissioner, reversed the Salem cooling-tower decision. Instead, PSEG agreed to undertake a massive restoration program of more than 20,000 acres of tidal wetlands along the shores of the Delaware Bay. After he left state government, Weiner worked briefly as a consultant to PSEG.

Environmental activists say the program has failed to achieve its objectives.

According to the letters sent to the New Jersey DEP and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, the groups claim that Salem kills over 3 billion Delaware River fish and organisms a year. They said the Mercer plant kills over 70 million fish annually and the Delaware City Refinery over 45 million.

Salem’s current permit expired in 2006, Mercer’s in 2011, and the Delaware City Refinery’s in 2002.

“It’s time for this to stop,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, a conservation organization that signed the letters. “These letters are but a first step in the many we are committed to take to ensure the fish of the Delaware River are protected from needless slaughter.’’

PSEG said its Mercer and Salem plants continue to operate and meet all regulatory requirements under their current permits, according to Joseph Delmar, manager of nuclear communications for the company. “This includes state-of –the-art screening with fish returns to protect the environment and promote aquatic life,’’ he said in an email message.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the Mercer coal units rarely operate so their impact is minimal. There are three units at Mercer, one a peaking unit that runs on natural gas and two coal units, which are mostly idle because they cannot compete with the lower costs of natural gas.

“As part of the permit for Salem 1 and 2, we do re quire screens and other technology to minimize fish impacts,’’ he said. “Meantime, we’re waiting, like everyone else, for more guidance from the federal government as it finalizes standards for cooling water intake structures under section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act.’’ He is referring to the section of the law dealing with cooling towers.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disputed that assertion.

“These plants are robbing us of the river that belongs to all of us,’’ he said. “They are killing fish, stealing our water, and adding pollution to the Delaware River. For too long the government has been protecting the polluters instead of protecting the river that belongs to all of us.’’

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, noted that fish quotas already have been imposed on commercial and recreational anglers to protect fish species.

“To allow these industrial plants to get away to extensive impact to young fish while the anglers have to curb their fishing is unjustifiable and very unfair,’’ said Dillingham.

The groups are likely to sue if the states don’t act on their application. The EPA draft proposal came about after a suit brought by environmental organizations, a case that required the federal agency to adopt the standard.