Federal EPA Again Delays Rule to Reduce Massive Fish Kills at Power Plants

Proposed regulation does not mandate cooling towers at current sites, gives state leeway to address problems with 'best available technology'

Salem nuclear power plant
The federal government once again has delayed adopting a much-litigated regulation aimed at reducing massive fish kills at power plants, a proposal with implications for generating units in New Jersey and potentially affecting the reliability of the electric grid.

In a letter released by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday, the day before the rule was to be approved under a court-sanctioned agreement, the EPA informed a federal district court judge it would fail to comply with the deadline, suggesting instead it complete the process by May 16.

The delay marks the fifth occasion that the EPA has put off finalizing the draft rule, first proposed more than three years ago. The proposal potentially could require some companies to build cooling towers at large power plants that draw huge amounts of water for their operations to lessen the impact on aquatic life, a cause backed by environmental groups in New Jersey for years.

The draft regulation does not mandate cooling towers at existing plants, but gives leeway to state authorities to decide how to protect aquatic life on a case-by-case basis, using “best available technology’’ to curb fish kills.

Still, industry officials worry about other aspects of the proposed rule, including requiring existing power units to meet numeric standards for reducing fish mortality. That happens when fish and larvae are sucked into the plant when water is withdrawn from either bays or rivers and killed when the they are trapped against the unit’s screens.

For some plants, it is a major issue. For example, PSEG Power’s two Salem nuclear units have been the focus of complaints from environmentalists for more than two decades. More than a billion fish are killed each year when water from the Delaware estuary is used to cool the units.

At one point during the Florio administration, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered PSEG to build cooling towers, but that decision was reversed. Instead, the company agreed to undertake a massive project to help restore fisheries. Cooling towers also figured in the battle to close Oyster Creek, with the Corzine administration ordering towers to be installed at the Lacey Township plant operated by Exelon. The company, however, reached a deal with the Christie administration to close the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear plant in nine years without having to build the structures.

Nationwide, more that 500 power plants could be affected by the rule. Beyond laying out expensive new capital expenditures for needed improvements, the rule comes at a time when power prices have slumped, making the units less profitable than in the more recent past.

“It’s not just this rule,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst at Glenrock Associates in New York City. “It’s a question of the cumulative effect of a lot of rules.’’

They include tough new emission requirements on coal-fired power plants already adopted by the EPA, which is leading to a wave of retirement of older coal plants in the PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest power grid serving New Jersey and other states in the region.

“It’s a big concern,’’ agreed Ralph Izzo, president, chairman and CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group, the owner of PSEG Power, when asked about the issue last week. The North American Electric Reliability Coalition, a nonprofit organization geared to promoting reliability of the power grid, called the draft rule “far and away’’ the biggest impact on reliability, according to Izzo.

But some environmentalists were not persuaded.

“It’s really a concern because we’ve been waiting and waiting and there’s been little progress,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, whose national organization was part of the lawsuit, which led to EPA proposing the rule.

He also disputed suggestions, that if the rule is adopted, power plants may not be required to build cooling towers to reduce fish kills. “Nothing else will get you where you want to go,’’ he said.

In the meantime, environmental groups are urging the DEP to act on a long-pending water permit PSEG Power submitted to allow it to continue pulling water from the estuary for its Salem operations. The case is now before a state appeals court, according to Tittel.