Challenge to Federal EPA Ruling Could Help Save Marine Life in New Jersey

Tom Johnson | September 4, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Environmental coalition wants power plants across country to take steps to reduce fish and shellfish kills

Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper: Amendment "will provide a backstop for citizens..."
Unhappy with a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule, a coalition of conservation groups is challenging the regulation, which they say will adversely affect marine life at more than a thousand power plants across the nation, including perhaps a half-dozen in New Jersey.

In a lawsuit filed in federal courts in New York, San Francisco, and Boston, the group claims the new regulation fails to protect aquatic life by destroying billions of fish, shellfish, and other marine life each year. The EPA rule is aimed at reducing the adverse affects of power plants on fisheries.

The issue revolves around the vast amount of water that power plants withdraw from the nation’s rivers, lakes, and other sources to cool their plants. In New Jersey, the problem previously led to litigation against several power plants, including the two Salem nuclear power stations and the B.L. England plant in Cape May.

The dispute is a huge issue for the nation’s big power suppliers. If the lawsuit is successful, it could result in expensive upgrades to their facilities to reduce the impact on fisheries. In some cases, plants may be shut down earlier than scheduled. That could be the fate of the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, which already is expected to close by 2019, according to an agreement with the Christie administration.

“EPA has failed to protect the public’s interest in healthy ecosystems and vibrant marine life with this failed rule,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “They have put the interests of the communities of people such as recreational and commercial fishermen, which depend on healthy waters behind those of polluting industries.’’

Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper, noted that the plant at Salem is killing over 3 billion fish a year. The environmental groups want the facilities to install closed-cycle cooling systems, which would reduce the intake of water into the plants by up to 90 percent, she said.

The regulation does not specifically require cooling towers to solve the problem of fish kills — a very expensive proposition for the owners — but gives state authorities leeway to protect aquatic life on a case-by-case basis, using “best available technology.’’

To the environmental groups, that is not enough. “We were hoping the rules would be good, but they have punted to the states without any standards,’’ argued Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, whose national organization was part of the coalition filing the lawsuit.

Federal agencies responsible for protecting imperiled species found that 266 threatened and endangered species are affected by power plants with once-through cooling, a technology that discharges large amounts of hot water into waterways.

In addition, the withdrawal of water from nearby bays, rivers, and other areas causes fish to be sucked into the plant, where they are killed on screens designed to protect the unit from marine life.

According to the environmental groups, so-called closed-cycle cooling is a proven technology that can reduce fish kills, habitat disruption, and water withdrawals by 95 percent.

“EPA’s latest version of this critically important regulation is a complete fiasco, and a clear sign that the agency entrusted by law with protecting the environment is instead kowtowing to industry pressure and sending this problem back to state regulators to solve,’’ said Paul Galley, president and Hudson Riverkeeper.

At one time during the administration of former Gov. Jim Florio, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered a cooling tower to be installed at one of the Salem nuclear plants in South Jersey. The decision was eventually reversed with the owner instead undertaking a massive restoration plan along wetlands on the Delaware Bay, a project much less costly than what DEP initially proposed.

Beyond the two Salem nuclear units, other facilities that could be affected by the challenge include power plants in Mercer County, Hudson County, Oyster Creek in Ocean County, and the B.L. England plant in Cape May.