Crisis Averted

The DWP came to its senses on AB 1552.

Last week the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gutted and amended a pending state bill (AB 1552) and inserted new language that would have significantly eased newly established rules for how power plants suck in ocean water to cool themselves.  DWP leaders went on the offensive against these regulations, even though an existing city policy on Once Through Cooling legislation doesn’t exist. They moved forward without a city council vote on the proposed legislation. (And in an interesting bit of timing, lawmakers introduced the measure just as the L.A. City Council commenced its two-week summer break.) 

Instead of trusting public process, which considered both economics and grid reliability, the DWP crafted AB 1552 as a cynical exemption that applied only to itself. If the bill became law, DWP would have been able to skirt the intent of the new policy by receiving severely weakened flow reduction targets for its OTC plants in comparison with similar facilities statewide.  The utility even had the nerve to write in a new definition of technical feasibility that is completely inconsistent with the federal Clean Water Act and last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the issue.

Fortunately, the DWP came to its senses late this week and dropped the offensive gut-and-amend legislation, thereby averting a horrible precedent at the state legislature. Even before the clandestine backroom shenanigans began in Sacramento, DWP initiated discussions with the State Water Board last week. Discussions on the DWP compliance plan strategy were promising enough this week to lead the utility to shelve the bill.

DWP’s heavy-handed tactics to blow up the OTC policy through AB 1552 would have set a precedent that would result in continued degradation of California’s coast and ocean.  This week, numerous power companies lobbied legislators to get their own exemptions added to the legislation.  The bill undermined the integrity of the public, administrative and legislative processes and passage of the legislation would have led to erosion of collaborative approaches to environmental protection. Finally, passage of AB 1552 would have encouraged more last-second legislative attempts to avoid compliance with environmental laws and regulations.

California’s 19 OTC power plants are permitted to pull in over 16 billion gallons of water for cooling daily, or over 17.9 million acre-feet per year, killing virtually everything in the cooling water in the process. These power plants kill tens of billions of fish, larvae and invertebrates annually, according to the State Water Board, including 30% of the recreational fish stock off the Southern California coast. The DWP operates three OTC plants in Los Angeles County: Scattergood on the Santa Monica Bay and the Haynes and Harbor facilities in the port area.

Rightly concerned about the ecological devastation caused by OTC, the state’s Water Quality Control Board conducted five years of public hearings before issuing new restrictions on how plants will cool themselves in the future. The board adopted the new rules in May, nearly 35 years after passage of the federal Clean Water Act, which includes strict requirements to protect aquatic life resources from the harm caused by operating coastal power plants.

The new rules call for a roughly 90% reduction in plants’ impacts on marine life through impingement (fish getting stuck on screens) and entrainment (fish and invertebrate larvae getting sucked into power plants and cooked).

The care, inclusiveness and transparency of assembling the state’s new OTC policy can’t be overstated. The California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission, California Independent System Operator, State Lands Commission, Ocean Protection Council, federal EPA, and a wide variety of stakeholders representing power plants, fishing interests, conservation groups, environmental justice organizations and energy experts all participated in shaping the policy over the last five years.

Independent studies assessed the feasibility and potential grid reliability impacts of the new rules. The highly public process included about a dozen workshops and hearings, and culminated in the approval of a policy that puts energy reliability first.

I’m strongly encouraged that the DWP wised up and moved forward on compliance plan negotiations with the State Water Board.  Heal the Bay will work with the DWP and the state to ensure that the final plan protects marine life and complies with state policy.

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