The Fish Won!

The State Water Board voted to curtail once through cooling.

Going into Tuesday’s State Water Board hearing on California’s once-through-cooling policy for power plants, you couldn’t blame me for my usual cynicism about our ability to care for the environment.

 After all, the ongoing Gulf spill is causing catastrophic damage to one of America’s most critical estuaries and fisheries. And Gov. Schwarzenegger decided this week that his personal right to light up a stogie in a state park or beach is more critical than stopping marine debris. (Remember – only you can prevent forest fires!)

So the 4 a.m. wakeup call to make the dawn patrol flight up to Sacramento felt a lot tougher than usual, given that the final draft of the once-through-cooling policy had been severely watered down and only the outgunned environmental community seemed vigilant about fighting for a strengthened policy. 

The board’s marathon session lasted more than nine hours, which seemed fitting after the State Water Board staff’s painstaking work on the policy for the last five years. Board members heard endless testimony on the impacts of OTC on marine life and the allegedly prohibitive cost of complying with Section 316b of the Clean Water Act (the provision that requires Best Available Technology to reduce the aquatic life impacts of power generation).

They also heard much about the supposed need for loopholes to allow power plant construction and compliance deadline delays in the event of unforeseen circumstances, ranging from a true emergency to local neighborhood opposition. 

In other words, members heard a rehash of the same information, concerns and complaints that have been discussed for the better part of the last five years. I didn’t think the fish had much of a chance of winning.

Then John Kemmerer spoke for the national EPA and pointed out numerous weaknesses in the draft policy.  His comments echoed many of the environmental community’s positions, so that gave us a glimmer of hope.

California Coastkeeper Alliance’s Linda Sheehan, former Waterkeeper Alliance president Steve Fleischli and Heal the Bay’s Sarah Sikich gave superb testimony – backing up the strong 40- page comment letter they wrote a few weeks earlier that ripped apart the draft policy.  Later in the day, Surfrider’s Joe Geever gave an impassioned plea for a tougher policy and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission’s Dr. Shelley Luce testified on the importance of phasing out OTC for bay restoration.

As the day wore on, the chances of any type of success appeared to diminish as representatives from the power companies fought any amendments to the draft policy.  The board members began deliberations in the late afternoon and they didn’t make a final decision on the policy until around 7 p.m.  Yet, at a time when environmental good news appears to be on the endangered species list, the board opted to strengthen the draft policy in many critical ways.

Perhaps most importantly, with a 3-2 vote, the board decided to reestablish a tiered system of compliance, where power plants are required to move to a closed-cycle cooling system, unless they demonstrate that it’s infeasible. If a facility convincingly shows they can’t do closed-cycle cooling then they have the option of reducing their cooling water intake flows by 83%.

The board made a major improvement to this second tier by basing it on the average actual monthly flow of cooling water (from 2000-05) instead of a power plant’s design flow, which is basically its potential maximum cooling water intake (the vast majority of plants operate far below this volume). 

The determination of an accurate flow baseline is critical in compliance determination for this second tier.  This decision means that compliance will be determined based on the actual impacts to marine life rather than hypothetical impacts based on design.

The issue has been extremely contentious because many coastal power plants are peaker plants that only operate during times of peak energy need. The draft policy gave massive credits to peaker plants for their sporadic operations. Under the draft policy, the peakers could suck the life out of the ocean at peak capacity during the summer months when fish populations and spawning is at its highest, yet they could still comply with the policy with few, if any, major power plant modifications.

With the board decision, most power plants will be forced to repower their inefficient OTC plants to Best Technology Available, which includes closed cycle and dry cooling. That shift marks a huge benefit for marine life.

The unlikely hero on the vote was board chair Charlie Hoppin, a farmer from the Central Valley that, until the vote, had not shown any predisposition to support the change or even a strong policy. Solid environmental votes, Tam Doduc and Fran Spivy-Weber, also supported the policy amendment.

Other beneficial changes in the policy closed some of the delay loopholes and ensured that the policy came a lot closer to requiring power plants to truly comply with section 316b of the Clean Water Act.  The board also required that a three-year fish impingement and larval entrainment study be completed to establish a baseline on the marine life impacts of individual coastal OTC power plants.

Despite some positive outcomes, the board also made a few poor decisions. The nukes (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon) were granted creative new ways to pursue different compliance alternatives or delay compliance for decades. They’ll still have to complete some measures to reduce their enormous ongoing impacts of OTC, but they have cost analyses and special studies to fall back on that could allow them to avoid going to dry or closed cycle cooling.

Compliance with the policy through Track 2 (reduction of impingement and entrainment through operational and end-of-pipe modifications, such as screens to try to keep marine life out of a power plant) is still easier than compliance with Track 1, which requires a 93% reduction in cooling water flow. 

And the decision to require each of the 19 power plant discharge permits to come to the State Water Board individually for approval marked perhaps the strangest outcome of the hearing. Power plant discharge permits now go to the Regional Water Boards for approval, so the change may sound concerning to local communities. 

But the decision to bring the permits to the State Water Board to enhance consistency led the way for the subsequent improvements in the draft policy. And, local communities will still have the opportunity to engage on individual power plant permit review. Regional Water Boards will still draft the permits and the State Water Board will hold local hearings to consider each permit.

From here, the policy goes to the Office of Administrative Law for final approval (about a six-month time frame).

It’s unclear whether any power generators or environmental groups will sue over the final outcome.  One thing is for certain.  Yesterday’s policy decision should lead to the long-awaited end of OTC in California.  And that’s a decision that will save the lives of billions of fish and other marine life, and provide a long overdue boost to the coastal communities that rely on the ocean for their livelihood.

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