Fight the Power

Once Through Cooling plants suck the life out of the ocean

Once Through Cooling plants suck the life out of the ocean

I just sat through a seven-hour workshop on the State Water Board’s long-awaited Once Through Cooling power plant policy for California. Arguably, this may be the most important coastal resource protection action in California this year. State Water Board staff put together a draft policy that could finally hold the power industry accountable for decades of non-compliance with the Clean Water Act. In essence, the policy requires OTC plants to comply with Section 316b of the Act and greatly reduce their impacts on fisheries and marine life. These plants use ancient steam generation technologies that literally suck the life out of the ocean. Fish are caught on screens and larvae and eggs get cooked in the plant.

The many speakers who showed up largely stuck to their scripts. The enviro community came out en masse (Keepers, NRDC, Surfrider, Sierra Club, and Heal the Bay) and largely supported most of the draft policy with a strong call for policy simplification and the elimination of giant compliance loopholes. The strength behind the enviro position came from the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals on the Riverkeeper I and II cases. Our positions are also supported by the Supreme Court.

The power companies all complained about the policy being too expensive, too difficult to comply with, and hampered by too short deadlines. However, they couldn’t provide any suggestions on improving the policy while still complying with the Clean Water Act. The differences in the testimony delivered by the various power companies were largely negligible, with NRG the only one espousing a neutral position.

The power industries’ blanket opposition to every part of the policy (including the font choice) is disappointing, given that the energy regulators (CEC, Cal-ISO, and the PUC) all supported the policy and developed the compliance deadlines for each of the 19 power plants covered by the policy.

Glaringly absent from the workshop were the sport and commercial fishing communities. A 2005 study demonstrated an overall entrainment mortality of 1.4% of larval fishes in the Southern California Bight. Recreational fish impingement totaled 8% to 30% of sportfish species caught in the Southern California Bight.

We need the fishing community to come out and support strengthening the OTC policy as vigorously as its members are fighting Marine Protected Areas. The issue marks a great chance for the environmental and fishing communities to collaborate for mutual benefit. And the fish win too.

But, there isn’t much time for the fishing community to weigh in. The final decision on the policy will probably come in December. Comments are due Sept. 30.  A strong OTC policy will lead to healthier coastal fisheries and a repowered, more energy efficient California.

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