The state eliminated a major regulatory hurdle dealing with the operation of the Salem nuclear power plants, issuing final permits allowing the units to withdraw billions of gallons of water from the Delaware Bay.
In granting the five-year permit, the DEP is not requiring PSEG Power the operator and owner of 57 percent of the two units to build expensive cooling towers, a step environmentalists had long advocated as a way to avoid decimating the estuary’s fish population. The plants provide enough power for about 3 million homes. Exelon is the other owner of the units.
The final permit, announced by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s website without fanfare late Friday, replaces existing permits, which expired a decade ago. Environmentalists had sued to force the agency to issue a new permit; a draft version was released almost a year ago.
The two plants produce much of the carbon-free electricity used by state residents, along with the adjacent Hope Creek unit. With new 20-year operating licenses granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2011, the only major issue facing their continued operation is financial — being economically competitive with cheaper-running natural gas units.
Public Service Enterprise Group officials have quietly begun lobbying administration and legislative officials about securing new financial incentives for the units — given their ability produce power without contributing any emissions to global climate change.
The permits are sure to be challenged in court by opponents, who want the company to install cooling towers to reduce the killing of young larvae and eggs sucked into the plants by water withdrawals. Hope Creek does have a cooling tower.
“Today the state of New Jersey and Gov. Christie said it was okay for PSEG to keep on with its practice of indiscriminate killing despite technology that could reduce the fish kills by over 95 percent,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper. “Salem is the largest predator in the Delaware Estuary and Bay, and has been for over 40 years.’’
But Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the renewed permit is consistent with the final rule adopted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act. This rule sets forth acceptable technologies to reduce the loss of aquatic life, citing screens to prevent fish from being killed used by the company, Hajna said.
The final permit includes requirements to modify the screens to prevent fish kills. According to the DEP, state-of-the-art screens in use at the facility since 1995 have reduced fish mortality by 88 percent. According to the agency, it essentially reauthorizes water permits first issued in 2001.
Instead of requiring cooling towers, PSEG has undertaken a massive wetlands restoration project of 20,000 tidal acres around the plant.
Both van Rossum and Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, vowed to contest the permits in court.
“Now we will challenge this permit in court since they’re (DEP) more concerned with the polluters than the environment or the billions of fish killed,’’ Tittel said.