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Environmental Enforcement: EPA Proposes Plant Cooling Regulations to Protect Fish

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday proposed for public comment standards that it says will protect billions of fish and other aquatic animals drawn into cooling systems at power plants and large factories.

The proposal is based on Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act, which requires power plant operators and large industrial units that use water cooling systems to use the “best technology available” to protect aquatic life in the bodies of water they draw cooling water from.

Under the proposal, safeguards against impingement will be required for all facilities above a minimum size. And facilities using closed-cycle cooling systems – systems that continually recycle and cool the water so that minimal water needs to be drawn from an adjacent waterbody – may also be required to apply such safeguards on a case by case basis.

The EPA is proposing this regulation as a result of a settlement agreement with Riverkeeper and other environmental groups. The settlement, signed on November 22, 2010, resolved two court cases brought against the EPA in 1993 and 2006, which alleged that the EPA had failed to enforce Section 316(b).

Today’s proposed new standards focus on two dangers to aquatic life, which the EPA refers to as “fish impingement” – when a fish becomes pinned against screens or other parts of a cooling water intake structure, and “fish entrainment” – when fish are drawn into a cooling system and affected by heat, chemicals or physical stress.

Existing facilities that withdraw at least 25 percent of their water exclusively for cooling purposes and have a design intake flow of greater than 2 million gallons per day would be required to reduce fish impingement under the proposed regulations.

The owner or operator of the facility will be able to choose one of two options for meeting “best technology available” requirements for reducing impingement. They may conduct monitoring to show the specified performance standards for impingement mortality of fish and shellfish have been met, or they may demonstrate to the permitting authority that the intake velocity meets the specified design criteria.

More than half of the facilities that could be impacted by this proposed rule already employ readily available technologies that are likely to put them into compliance with the proposed standard, the EPA estimates.

To curtail fish entrainment the EPA is proposing a site-specific determination to be made based on local concerns and on the unique circumstances of each facility.

This proposed rule establishes requirements for the facility owner to conduct comprehensive studies and develop other information as part of the permit application, and then establishes a public process, with opportunity for public input, by which the appropriate technology to reduce entrainment mortality would be implemented at each facility after considering site-specific factors.

The proposed rule would also require closed-cycle cooling for new units at existing facilities, as is already required for new facilities.

“This proposal establishes a strong baseline level of protection and then allows additional safeguards for aquatic life to be developed through a rigorous site-specific analysis, an approach that ensures the most up to date technology available is being used. It puts implementation analysis in the hands of the permit writers, where requirements can be tailored to the particular facility,” said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water. “The public’s comments will be instrumental in shaping safeguards for aquatic life and to build a common-sense path forward. The input we receive will make certain that we end up with a flexible and effective rule to protect the health of our waters and ecosystems.”

The public will be able to comment on the proposal upon its publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will conduct a 90-day comment period, and consider those comments before taking final action on the proposal. The administrator must take final action by July 27, 2012, under the terms of the settlement.

More information can be found here.

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