The state’s courts are being asked to compel the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to issue a new water permit to the Salem nuclear power plants to avert the killing of billions of fish each year.
In a legal action filed yesterday, a coalition of environmental organizations asked the Superior Court in Mercer County to order the agency either to issue a draft permit to the owner of the plant, PSEG Power (which submitted the draft seven years ago) or to deny the permit. The state has never acted on the permit.
The action is the latest twist in a decades-old dispute about the Salem nuclear plants, a facility located in a sparsely settled area of Lower Alloways Creek Township in Salem County. Environmentalists have long argued that the two plants kill at least a billion fish each year by sucking in more than 3 billion gallons of water from the Delaware Estuary each day.
The issue revolves around federal clean water laws, which regulate how much pollution major industrial facilities, such as power plants, can discharge into waterways or how much water they can pull from bays and nearby rivers and bays. In New Jersey, the federal government has delegated responsibility for ensuring compliance to the state DEP.
The problems posed by the plants have long been recognized by the DEP. In 1990, the commissioner of the agency ordered PSEG to install expensive cooling towers to reduce fish kills, a decision hailed by environmental groups, but later reversed by the commissioner’s successor.
Instead, the agency signed off on a multimillion-dollar marshland restoration program along land PSEG owns on the Delaware Bayshore, a project that has elicited mixed reviews from conservationists who have been following it.
Perhaps more importantly, a federal court ruled in 2004 that restoration measures could not be utilized by power suppliers to reduce impingement and entrainment — which occurs when fish are killed by being pulled into a generating unit or trapped against its screens.
The ruling is expected to result in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issuing a new regulation, possibly as early as November, giving states guidance on how to enforce federal clean water laws as they apply to major power plants, possibly requiring expensive cooling towers or other technology that would make many older units economically unviable.
It is a huge issue not only in New Jersey, but elsewhere in the country, according to analysts.
“In the current market, the last thing a nuclear power plant needs is a major capital investment,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst at Glenrock Associates in New York City, referring to the historically low natural-gas prices that have roiled the markets for power suppliers.
A DEP spokesman declined to address the latest litigation, but noted that the agency expects to issue a final Clean Water Act regulations in about a month.
“These regulations will serve as a guide to the DEP in preparing permit renewals for the Salem reactors,’’ said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency. “The reactors’ permits currently requires state-of-the-art screens designed to reduce fish impingement.’’
PSEG officials argued that their facilities complied with all permit conditions. “This includes state-of-the-art screening with fish returns to protect the environment and promote aquatic life,’’ according Joseph Delmar, a spokesman with the company.
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, one of the parties to the suit, dismissed that argument. “It’s not an excuse for these agencies not doing anything for decades,’’ she said. In addition to New Jersey, the coalition filed a similar action in Delaware, seeking its environmental agency to act on an 11-year-old water permit pending for the Delaware City Refinery.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed, saying the litigation aims to force the state to do a job it should have done a long time ago. “For too long, the state has allowed this plant to impact the river,’’ he said.
Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, noted that Gov. Chris Christie, when campaigning for his first tem in office, vowed to stop the fish kills at Salem within 100 days. “He hasn’t done anything to implement that promise,’’ Pringle said. His organization endorsed Christie when he first ran for election.
PSEG officials defended their plants. “PSEG and its plants continue to operate and meet all regulatory requirements under their current permits,’’ said Joseph Delmar, a spokesman. “This includes state-of-the-art screening with fish returns to protect the environment and promote aquatic life.’’