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August 09, 2011

How Power Plants Kill Fish & Damage Our Waterways

Washington, D.C . -  Today, the Sierra Club released a new report detailing the damage from outdated once-through cooling systems used by power plants in the Gulf of Mexico; the Mississippi River; the Hudson River, New York Harbor and Long Island Sound; the California Coast; the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.

Fish_blender As detailed in the report titled Giant Fish Blenders: How Power Plants Kill Fish & Damage Our Waterways (And What Can Be Done to Stop Them), it is estimated that billions of fish and other aquatic organisms are killed each year by water-intake systems on outdated power plants, including coal-fired power plants. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new standards for these cooling water systems and is currently accepting public comment on the draft standards, which unfortunately fall far short of what is needed to protect fisheries and waterways.

Antiquated power plants throughout the nation use water-intake systems to help cool equipment that has generated heat during the energy-making process. These cooling pipes sit below the water’s surface and suck in not only water, but also anything else in the vicinity. After the water is drawn through the power plant, it is discharged at high temperatures back into the body of water. The process threatens the full spectrum of wildlife in the aquatic ecosystem at all life stages—from tiny photosynthetic organisms to fish, shrimp, crabs, birds and marine mammals. Some areas face devastating economic repercussions as fisheries are threatened and recreational uses are diminished. This outdated process is demonstrated in this popular animation by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore.

“Power plants suck more than 200 billion gallons of water a day from America’s waterways,” says Dalal Aboulhosn, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club.  “Forty-nine percent of all of the water use in America is from the power industry. That’s more water than all of our nation’s irrigation and public water supplies combined.”        

The EPA is charged with implementing Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act, which requires the use of the best technologies available to minimize the environmental harm of power plants’ water use. “Closed-cycle cooling” is the best technology available to reduce the threats of cooling water systems and is both cost-effective and already in use across the country. Closed-cycle cooling reduces water intakes by approximately 95 percent, drastically reducing the amount of water needed for power plant operations, and resulting in a corresponding reduction of the damages to fish and other species and the surrounding ecosystem. However, the EPA has proposed new federal cooling water standards that would not require utilities to use these updated systems. The public comment period for those draft standards closes on August 18 and comments can be submitted by visiting www.sierraclub.org/stopfishblenders.

“Under intense pressure from powerful industry interests, the EPA has decided not to require power plants to use the best technology available,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Instead, EPA issued a proposed standard that largely maintains the status quo, offering little-to-no improvement in the technologies required to protect our waterways and our wildlife. The cooling water guidelines currently proposed by the EPA will do little to address the devastation described in this report. We hope that the report will illuminate the harmful effects of once-through cooling on the health of our fisheries and waterways, and will encourage the EPA to require higher standards for these systems.”

Read a copy of the report.

Read a fact sheet on cooling systems.

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