Power Plants under pressure
Power plants under pressure
Groups call for utilities to install less-invasive cooling technology
By Dan Shapley
NEWBURGH ? For centuries, March would bring with it huge schools of rainbow smelt swimming up the Hudson River to spawn. Fishermen netted them in tidal creeks and families feasted on the Hudson's first harvest of spring.
Today, a quarter century after smelt grew so scarce commercial fishing ended, there are virtually no smelt left to catch in the Hudson.
"I wish they were here because I love to eat smelt," said Bob Gabrielson Sr., a longtime commercial fisherman from Nyack. "I pan fry them ? cut the heads off, gut 'em a little bit, scrape 'em a little touch, and you eat them like pretzels. They're excellent."
Smelt have declined, the prevailing theory goes, because they just couldn't take the heat. A slight warming of the river, probably due to the changing climate, is mainly to blame for the decline and apparent disappearance of smelt, a fish that thrives only in cold water.
But power plants probably played a contributing role, according to a 2003 Department of Environmental Conservation analysis. In addition to smelt, the plants may be reducing the overall population of a number of species, from American shad and striped bass to Atlantic tomcod and bay anchovy, according to the DEC environmental impact statement. The analysis is the basis for controversial permits the plants need to renew if they are to continue using Hudson River water.
Five older power plants, built between 1955 and 1976, use Hudson River water to cool the steam that turns generators that keep Hudson Valley light bulbs lit and air conditioners humming. The process uses more than a trillion gallons of water each year, killing billions of fish eggs and larvae that get sucked through the plants or caught on screens at intake pipes.
The plants discharge the water, heated on average about 16 degrees.
Clearly, power plants are only one of several factors that affect smelt and the river's other fish. Pollution, the vagaries of weather, fishing and habitat changes often harm or help fish in more dramatic and obvious ways. Since fishing restrictions were imposed 20 years ago, for instance, striped bass numbers have mushroomed despite the continued use of river water by power plants.
"I've never seen the river so bountiful and healthy in my life," said Gabrielson, who is 75 and has been fishing since he was young.
The ups and downs of fish in the Hudson, and the complex natural and human forces that influence them, are at the heart of the 40-year-old controversy about how the state should regulate the use of Hudson water at power plants.
Plants built today, including Hudson Valley plants recently built in Athens, Greene County, and Bethlehem, Albany County, use little or no water because they were built with cooling towers that recycle water rather than continually withdrawing it from the river.
The old plants ? Dynegy's Roseton and Danskammer plants in Newburgh; Entergy's Indian Point plant in Buchanan, Westchester County; and Mirant's Lovett and Bowline plants in Rockland County ? have been under pressure to retrofit with modern technology for 30 years.
Disagree on culpability
Environmental groups see the power plants as a significant player in the declines of several fish species. The law, they say, clearly requires the plants to use the "best technology available" to minimize the damage. The best technology available, they say, are large and expensive cooling towers that would use much less water and kill far fewer fish.
The plant owners say there's no evidence killing fish eggs and larvae ? even billions of them ? harms overall populations. In other words, reducing fish killed at plants would not increase the number of fish available for fishermen. In the wild, for instance, a single female striped bass lays many thousands of eggs, and far less than one percent of them will survive their first year.
"We are focused not on the number of fish lost, but the effect on the river and whether it affects sustainability," said Larry Barnthouse, a consultant for Indian Point. "Organisms die and populations persist."
The DEC, in a 2003 environmental impact statement for the Roseton, Indian Point and Bowline plants, saw it differently: Power plants have a cumulative effect on the river similar to destroying habitat, with the effect of diminishing whole populations of fish, it determined.
"The millions of fish that are killed by power plants each year represent a significant mortality and are yet another stress on the river's fish community," the DEC's analysis reads. "Although the primary cause of these population changes cannot conclusively be attributed entirely to the operation of these three steam electric generating stations, the mortality that they cause must be taken into account when assessing these population declines."
The plants are in the midst of protracted negotiations with the DEC to renew their permits for using river water. The permit renewals are being considered for the first time since 1987, and 30 years after the Environmental Protection Agency said the then-newly built Roseton, Bowline and Indian Point plants should install cooling towers to comply with the Clean Water Act.
Cooling towers recycle water in big steaming structures, vastly reducing the water used and fish killed to produce electricity. The towers are large and possibly unsightly. The water they withdraw would be released as steam, rather than returned to the river, and that could allow salt water to creep up the estuary toward drinking water intakes in Poughkeepsie and elsewhere.
In 1975, the towers for all of the plants would would have cost an estimated $500 million to build, and $180 million to operate each year.
Today, the cost to build a tower at Danskammer alone could reach $80 million, said Martin Daley, a senior director of regulatory affairs and administrative services for nine of Dynegy's plants. It may not be expensive enough to close the 46-year-old coal plant, but it would be a "big challenge," he said.
"It would be an incredible expense that would cascade down to the customers," Daley said.
Entergy estimates the cost of installing cooling towers at Indian Point's two nuclear reactors at $1.5 billion ? enough to put the plant out of business, spokesman James Steets said.
Closing the plant is the environmental groups' true goal, Steets believes. He pointed out that unlike plants that burn coal, oil or natural gas, Indian Point produces no air pollution.
"This ends up being fish eggs versus air quality," Steets said.
Riverkeeper, the environmental group from Garrison, has been the most outspoken voice arguing in favor of closing Indian Point because of concerns over safety and the long-term fate of nuclear waste. It also advocates installing cooling towers at the old plants.
"These fisheries are in decline, and the power plants are part of the problem," said Victor Tafur, a Riverkeeper attorney. "The whole idea of the Clean Water Act was that every five years (as permits are renewed) as technology got better, it was supposed to eliminate impacts."
The power plants challenged the EPA's 1975 decision, the state took over the permitting process and three decades of studies, lawsuits, lapsed agreements and controversy are only now reaching a head.
Hearings planned this month
The DEC has proposed new permits for Roseton, Indian Point and Danskammer. Hearings about new draft permits for Roseton are set for this month. Indian Point and Danskammer permits are also being challenged.
Environmental groups have challenged the draft permits for loosening some restrictions, like raising the maximum allowed temperature of discharged water, and for not requiring immediate installation of cooling towers.
Ideally, they'd like to see the plants turned off and "re-fired" with new cooling towers and natural gas as fuel.
Except at Indian Point, the DEC has proposed a variety of measures other than cooling towers. They include the installation of mesh screens on intake pipes to prevent passage of all but water, controls on pumps so plants only suck in the water they need, and in one case the use of a device that emits sonic noise to deter herring from entering the intake pipes.
At Indian Point, installation of cooling towers depends on approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the renewal of licenses for the plant's two reactors, in 2013 and 2015.
The DEC determined the expense of towers at Dynegy's plants would be "wholly disproportionate" to the environmental benefits.
The measures proposed by the DEC would reduce fish killed by upward of 80 percent, though Tafur calls that number a result of an "accounting gimmick."
It refers to the reduction of fish killed assuming the plants run at full capacity and do nothing to stop fish from dying. In fact, plants rarely run all the time and have been required since 1981 to take various steps to reduce fish kills.
Because the Hudson River is a nursery for so many spawning fish that live in the ocean, the impact of the power plants is not isolated to the Hudson, Tafur said.
"The whole economy of the North Atlantic is affected," he said.