Feds Order Susquehanna Power Plants and Others to Stop Killing Off Fish

Each year, millions of game fish, fish eggs, crayfish and other organisms are sucked out of the Lower Susquehanna River and killed by power plants.

Each year, millions of game fish, fish eggs, crayfish and other organisms are sucked out of the Lower Susquehanna River and killed by power plants.

Now, after a decade of debate and lawsuits, new federal regulations will -- for the first time -- force utilities and other large water users along the nation's rivers, streams and reservoirs to reduce the mortality significantly or replace what is lost.

The water users first have to document the extent of the damage they're causing.

Then they must choose among a variety of modern techniques designed to protect a significant percentage of the fish and other aquatic creatures.

Locally, the owner of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant is scrambling to comply, as well as PPL's Brunner Island coal-burning power plant, across from Bainbridge.

The owners of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant hope they may escape the safer water-intake measures because of the lower amount of water they withdraw, but no determination has been made.

"It's been a concern for years," says Leroy Young, chief of aquatic resources for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

"The numbers are significant. There are thousands of larger fish (killed) per facility per year. Entrainment rates (referring to organisms sucked into pipes and killed) can be 10 million or more -- mostly floating eggs and larval fish.

"Whether it's having a population level effect, I don't think anyone's measured that yet," Young says.

Utilities say it's not. They say fish populations in rivers such as the Susquehanna are robust and that the loss of millions of fish eggs and much lesser amounts of adult fish doesn't harm the resource.

They also note that the mortality of young fish is incredibly high from other natural sources.

"From our observations, we do not feel it is a large problem at Brunner Island," says Constance Walker, a PPL spokeswoman.

Brunner Island withdraws about 744 million gallons of water a day.

"The plant is not located in a sensitive area for aquatic organisms.

It's not in a spawning area or unique habitat. However, up until now, no plant has had to collect any data on this," Walker says.

But environmental groups, which refer to power plants as "aquatic slaughterhouses," maintain that power plants cause widespread ecological damage. They have successfully sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act and forced the agency to draw up regulations to stem the loss.

"Using antiquated technology, power plants often suck up the entire fresh water volume of large rivers, killing obscene numbers of fish," says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who sued EPA in 1993 on behalf of the Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

"These fish kills are illegal," Kennedy continues on an Internet site. "Just one facility, the Salem nuclear plant in New Jersey, kills more than 3 billion Delaware River fish each year, according to the plant's own consultant." Whether the kills are legal or not, a former southern Lancaster County worker at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant said he was "sickened" by the large numbers of sport fish he saw sucked out of the Susquehanna.

"When the water comes in, fish would swim in through tunnels and swim into wire baskets," said the man who lives in southern Lancaster County and asked that his name not be used.

"There were hundreds and hundreds of fish killed each day. Stripers and bass and walleye and gizzard shad and all kinds of fish.

It took a forklift to carry them out.

"Every species in the river comes in there when they turn those big intakes on."

TMI has a similar system for disposing of the fish and other organisms that make it through the intake maze. "If they get that far, they're not going back," said Pete Ressler, a spokesman for TMI owner Exelon Nuclear. "They are dumped into a container and disposed of."

Power plants and large industrial plants need large amounts of water to produce power and cool machinery. They withdraw water through huge pipes and tunnels and often return it in heated form.

The first hurdle for fish and eggs sucked into the intakes comes as they are pinned against screens designed to keep debris from entering the plant. If they make it through the screens, the organisms are likely killed by heat or chemicals, or removed from the water and discarded.

In 2001, a federal judge ordered the EPA to issue regulations restricting power-plant fish kills under the Clean Water Act.

In issuing those regulations in three phases, EPA estimated that more than 200 million aquatic organisms will be protected annually from death or injury nationwide.

The reduced mortality will be worth $73 million to $83 million per year, "primarily from improvements to commercial and recreational fishing," according to an EPA fact sheet.

EPA estimates that 550 facilities will be affected across the country and that safer intakes will cost about $400 million per year to implement and maintain.

The regulations primarily affect future or existing facilities that withdraw at least 50 million gallons of water per day.

Thus, local water users such as Armstrong World Industries' Marietta plant, Lancaster City's drinking-water intakes in the Susquehanna and Conestoga, the county incinerator and the proposed ethanol plant in Conoy Township are exempt from the new regulations.

But 89 facilities along waterways in Pennsylvania will have to take action.

The first order of business for large water users: documenting the quantity and species of aquatic life affected by water intakes.

Then, plant owners have several choices. They can put in place fish-protection measures such as screens with fish return systems and traveling screens with backwash devices.

They also can employ a closed-cycle cooling system, which recycles intake water, reducing the volume of water taken into the plant.

Depending on which type of body of water they are on, plants have to reduce the amount of aquatic life being sucked in by 60 to 90 percent and must cut the number of organisms squashed against screens by 80 to 90 percent.

However, plant owners can avoid the expense of best available technology by augmenting lesser mitigation measures with fish stocking or wetlands construction.

That has the coalition of environmental groups that led the charge for water-intake changes hopping mad.

They have again sued EPA, this time joined by six states: New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The attorneys general of the states are arguing for more stringent measures.

To see more of the Lancaster New Era, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lancasteronline.com/newera. (c) 2005, Lancaster New Era, Pa. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.