To the naked eye, it looks like an ecological disaster: Thousands of dead fish near the shoreline of Lake Erie's Maumee Bay east of Toledo.
Much to the chagrin of commercial fisherman Frank Reynolds, though, it's a sight that occurs far too often - almost daily, he says, near the intake of FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-fired Bay Shore power plant in Oregon.
Sadly, Bay Shore is not alone.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 550 large power plants across the country - those with cooling-water capacities of 50 million gallons a day or more - are needlessly killing off fish.
Fish die because they get caught up in the powerful intake currents. Larger fish bang against grated screens hard and succumb to injury, fatigue, or starvation. Smaller fish and minnows elude the screens and pass through the plant. A few survive the trauma, but most die, officials said.
The problem - long presumed to be one of the unfortunate trade-offs of generating electricity - may be older than the 32-year history of the nation's Clean Water Act itself.
But the U.S. EPA, in responding to a court order brought on by those hoping to minimize losses, announced Feb. 16, that it will use the Clean Water Act as its legal muscle for protecting fish.
In rules published July 9, the agency said power plants have until the fall of 2007 to make the kind of adjustments necessary to reduce the number of fish pinned against intake screens by 80 to 95 percent, whether that means installing expensive cooling towers or simply readdressing their long-standing flow regimes and plant screens. Cooling towers lessen the impact because the intake need is not nearly as great.
Certain facilities also will have to make improvements so that the number of tiny organisms passing through their screens is reduced by 60 to 90 percent, the agency said.
U.S. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said in February that such improvements could enhance the nation's recreational and commercial fishing industries by some $80 million a year, by annually protecting more than 200 million pounds of fish.
The requirements were embraced last night by Mr. Reynolds and Sandy Bihn, of the Maumee Bay Association, a citizens group that knows the value of western Lake Erie's coveted fishing industry.
Western Lake Erie has long been viewed by scientists as the most productive part of the Great Lakes because it is the warmest and shallowest area.
The lake, as a whole, produces more fish than the other four Great Lakes combined.
"Unfortunately, we have one of the worst situations on the Great Lakes right here. We know this is one of the main spawning grounds for fish. There has been a real severe impact on the fish population," said Mr. Reynolds, a fisherman for more than 40 years and one of the few in Ohio still holding a commercial fishing license.
The greatest losses are fish less than two inches long that serve as a food source for coveted sports fish such as yellow perch, walleye, and white bass, Mr. Reynolds said.
Bay Shore draws water from the mouth of the Maumee River, in an area where much of that massive tributary's spawning occurs. To the north lies Detroit Edison Co.'s coal-fired power plant in Monroe, one of the nation's largest. It draws water from the River Raisin.
Spokesmen for both utilities yesterday said their companies will do whatever it takes to keep their plants in compliance.
FirstEnergy is in the process of hiring contractors to do a study that is expected to take more than three years. "We want to make sure we have the facts. It may seem long-term, but you don't want just a snapshot," Mark Durbin, a utility spokesman, said.
Detroit Edison has just started to assess the situation at Monroe and its other plants, given what was just published in the Federal Register. "It's a little early in the process. We don't know which strategies will be applied at which plants," John Austerberry, a Detroit Edison spokesman, said.
Another rule, which the U.S. EPA plans to announce in November, is to apply to power stations and manufacturers that draw in less than 50 million gallons of water a day.
Many of the nation's 103 nuclear plants, including FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse and Detroit Edison's Fermi II, will be subject to the upcoming rule. They are not subject to the latest one because their cooling towers allow them to draw in fewer than 50 million gallons a day, officials have said.
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