The state Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to issue a draft water permit to PSEG Power’s Salem nuclear power plants by next July, a decision that temporarily resolves a lengthy dispute with environmental groups.
In a settlement with the DEP, the environmental groups had sought in state courts to force the agency to issue a permit that they hoped would drastically reduce the number of fish killed by the nuclear generating stations, which pull in a huge amount of water from Delaware Bay in order to run.
The environmental groups hope that the commitment to issue the permit by June 30, 2015 will force the agency to finally address how best to avert the killing of billions of fish each year. The generating stations use a huge amount of water from the Delaware Estuary each day.
At one time, the DEP ordered PSEG to install expensive cooling towers to reduce fish kills, a strategy favored by environmentalists. That decision was later reversed by a subsequent DEP commissioner.
The water permit has not been acted upon by the agency since 2006 when PSEG, a subsidiary of Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group, looked to renew its permit. That has yet to happen, in part, because the federal Environmental Protection Agency decided to revamp its rules dealing with how much water can be withdrawn to cool power plants.
The case could very well end up in court, if environmental groups are not satisfied with the conditions imposed by the draft permit on PSEG. The environmental groups that filed the initial suit included the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, New Jersey Sierra Club, the New Jersey Environmental Federation.
Some of the same groups are challenging in federal court the new rule adopted by the EPA to regulate water intake and discharge by power plants. They fear the rules do not go far enough in protecting marine life.
Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG, said the company is “looking forward to working with DEP as they consider our permit application.’’
Others had a different perspective. While calling the settlement with the DEP a step in the right direction, environmentalists indicate that the agency’s job remains unfinished, noting that the generator kills 48 percent of the striped bass in the Delaware River every year,
“Simply put, Salem is the largest predator in the Delaware Estuary and Bay,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, one of the groups that brought the suit. “When DEP does issue Salem’s draft permit we will be expecting that they properly apply the law and require the best technology available to minimize this harm, which necessarily means requiring the installation of closed-cycle cooling at Salem.’’
In such systems, water is reused and evaporation from a nearby cooling tower removes heat from the power plant. Electric power plants account for nearly half the water withdrawn every day in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“With this agreement the DEP has no more excuses and we will hold DEP,’’ accountable,’’ said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If they go past the date without a permit we will go back to court. If DEP issues a permit that does not protect the ecosystem we will challenge that permit.’’
David Pringle, New Jersey campaign director for Clean Water Action, called it good news that DEP has committed to draft a permit.
“It’s sad we had to sue Gov. (Chris) Christie to get him to do his job,’’ Pringle said. “Gov. Christie committed in October of 2009 to stop the fish slaughter within six months, five years later we are still waiting.’’