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Published: Saturday, 6/2/2007

Rally targets fish kills at power plant

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Weather permitting, an unorthodox protest could be held on western Lake Erie's Maumee Bay this afternoon.

An unspecified number of fishermen and leisure boaters are planning to herd up their vessels at 2 p.m. so they can collectively raise flags, honk horns, and otherwise rally in support of fish.

The event, by no coincidence, is to be held in the vicinity of FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-fired Bay Shore power plant in Oregon. The utility acknowledges the plant has killed millions of fish and their larvae over its 50-plus year history, but isn't sure what to do about it.

FirstEnergy has installed finer screens in hopes of keeping more fish from being drawn into the plant.

Yet even that has not come close to solving the problem: Many fish die from injuries after the massive intake current slams them up against the screen grates.

Today's event has been organized by Sandy Bihn, an Oregon environmental activist and local spokesman for the national Waterkeeper Alliance, a group campaigning nationally for better fish protection.

Ms. Bihn said she wants to draw the public's attention to the power plant's impact on western Lake Erie's fish. That portion of the lake is the shallowest, warmest, and most productive part of the Great Lakes.

She said the portion of Maumee Bay where the power plant is situated is especially vulnerable. The plant is located near the mouth of the Maumee River, the lake's biggest spawning ground.

"This river is the most biologically productive river of the Great Lakes," Ms. Bihn said.

She has called for FirstEnergy to install a cooling tower to reduce the intake's current and improve survival rates for fish.

The utility has balked, citing costs in excess of $200 million.

"It becomes a matter of economics versus the environment," Mark Durbin, FirstEnergy spokesman, said. "We're trying to strike a balance."

Those planning to accompany Ms. Bihn on the waterborne rally include Frank Reynolds, one of Ohio's last commercial fishermen who has spent years trying to get FirstEnergy to make Bay Shore safer for fish. FirstEnergy has results of recent fish kills, but is withholding them from the public until it is required to turn them over.

The latest research stems from rules the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued in 2004. The agency required power plants to update their inventories on fish kills and make plans for reducing mortalities by 80 to 95 percent. For many plants, that would require the kind of cooling tower FirstEnergy has been reluctant to build.

But in January, a federal appeals court ordered the federal agency to reconsider its rules. In March, the rules were suspended and regulatory authority over fish kills was reverted to the states.

Although FirstEnergy is in compliance with Ohio EPA rules now, Ms. Bihn said she is hopeful that agency officials will require the company's fish-kill research to be disclosed in the coming months as a condition for renewing the company's discharge permit.

It needs that permit to keep operating the plant. The Ohio EPA official most familiar with the situation could not be reached for comment.

Though Bay Shore is at the edge of a productive fishery, it's not alone in fish kills. In 2004, the U.S. EPA estimated that nearly 550 large power plants nationwide - those with cooling-water capacities of 50 million gallons a day or more - were needlessly killing off fish. The agency used the federal Clean Water Act as its legal muscle for its fish-protection order. If the appeal hadn't been successful, power plants would have had until this fall to make improvements. Federal EPA officials have said that reducing fish mortalities 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.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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