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Published: Monday, 2/23/2009

EPA aims to buoy fish numbers

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Fish lure billions of dollars from humans in the Great Lakes region: The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that the widely popular rod-and-reel sportfishing industry alone has an $800 million impact on the Buckeye State s economy.

Add to that the money that sportsmen bring to the seven other Great Lakes states, plus the commercial netting business that s especially big in Canada.

The simple act of going after what swims beneath the water s surface is a revenue whopper.

Many officials, seeing how cash-strapped the Great Lakes region has become by relying heavily on an industrialized economy, now hope that fishing will become more popular to help diversify the region s economy with more tourism.

Are power plants one of the obstacles in that plan?

In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there were 550 power plants nationwide with cooling-water capacities of 50 million gallons a day or more that were killing off unreasonable numbers of fish, as well as fish eggs and larvae, by pulling them into the currents of their powerful water intakes.

To some degree, that is the inevitable consequence of generating electricity.

Many plants operate at temperatures of 500 degrees or more. Utilities need great quantities of water for cooling.

But are utilities doing enough to save fish?

This fall, the federal EPA hopes to pump new life into the nation s fishery with rules on power plants that were supposed to go into effect in 2007.

Those rules, first announced in 2004, called for improvements that should result nationally in 85 to 90 percent fewer fish killed by power plants.

The rules were suspended before they went into effect because of legal challenges. Whatever replaces them this fall probably will be subject to extensive hearings and comment periods.

For 54 years, FirstEnergy Corp. s coal-fired Bay Shore power plant in Oregon has sat smack in the confluence of one of the Great Lakes region s most ecologically sensitive areas, where the Maumee River meets the Maumee Bay.

Some people now view it as the immovable object standing in the way of allowing Lake Erie s irresistible fishery to reach its full potential.

Lake Erie s western basin is the Great Lakes region s most important area for sustaining its fish population. It s the region s warmest, shallowest, and most biologically productive area, scientists have said.

The Maumee River Lake Erie s largest tributary is another star in that equation. It is the spawning ground for one of North America s most-prized catches, walleye.

Most fertile hatchery

Even FirstEnergy spokesman Chris Eck conceded it s obvious the Maumee River is the most fertile fish hatchery in the Great Lakes, though he said the utility is reluctant to spend large sums of money on improvements until it knows exactly what new regulations will be adopted by the federal government.

Until we have a [new] rule to comply with, we really can t comply with it, Mr. Eck said. As with any company, we want to solve this problem in the most cost-effective manner possible.

America especially the industrialized Great Lakes region wants all the electricity it can produce, especially from power plants such as Bay Shore that provide round-the-clock base load energy.

There s no getting around that.

Bay Shore is a midsized power generator. FirstEnergy has been investing in it.

And Bay Shore could become a player in cutting-edge research.

Last month, it was named as one of five power plants across North America that will be used to help assess equipment that might someday reduce the continent s output of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas associated with global warming.

So how can the production of electricity coexist better with the region s fishing industry?

That s the topic of a meeting the Ohio EPA has scheduled in Oregon for March 3 to hear from the public.

Starting at 6:30 p.m., the state agency will discuss findings of a report prepared by Tetra Tech, an independent consulting firm.

The meeting has been moved to the Wynn Elementary School gymnasium at 5224 Bay Shore Rd. to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd.

How utilities kill fish

Though Tetra Tech s report that will be discussed that night notes some remaining data gaps, a recent briefing that Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski received from the agency s surface-water division stated that Bay Shore impinges and entrains more organisms than all of the other power plants in Ohio combined.

Impingement is the act of fish being slammed against water-intake screens, usually resulting in death.

Entrainment is the term for juvenile fish most often eggs and larvae destroyed by getting pulled into the plant.

Mike McCullough, Ohio EPA environmental specialist, said entrainment is a harder issue to address because there are fewer technologies to guard against it.

Tetra Tech s report estimates that Bay Shore impinges more than 46 million fish a year against its screens.

It also states that more than 14 million juvenile fish and more than 2 billion fish in their larval form were killed inside the plant during the 2005-2006 sampling period.

We are concerned about the numbers of fish being impinged and entrained at Bay Shore, Mr. McCullough said. This issue has become more important, if you will.

The U.S. EPA s move to tighten restrictions came in response to a lawsuit in which some national environmental groups had claimed the government had a greater obligation to protect fish under the 1972 Clean Water Act, one of the nation s landmark environmental laws.

We re concerned about these numbers and believe they need to be reduced, not just because the Clean Water Act says so, Mr. McCullough said.

FirstEnergy contends that 99.7 percent of the fish eggs drawn into Bay Shore s current are dead long before they reach the plant. It also questioned how record fish hatches could have occurred over the years if Bay Shore was so destructive.

The Ohio EPA and other state agencies have been given the discretion of enacting stopgap measures before new federal rules are adopted, given the possibility of additional litigation causing more delays.

The federal EPA has urged the states to use their best professional judgment in determining whether to wait or go forward.

The Ohio EPA is inclined to go forward with something for Bay Shore, even if it s just a short-term fix until tougher rules take effect on the federal level.

Its actions likely will become a condition of Bay Shore s next Clean Water Act permit that is scheduled to be issued by June 30, Mr. McCullough said.

It anticipates a battle from FirstEnergy.

According to the internal briefing that Mr. Korleski received: Proceeding on this basis will likely be controversial since [FirstEnergy] has stated their reservations for investing any money in addressing this issue until the rules are rewritten.

Cooling towers

Some environmental groups, including the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper s Association, are calling upon utilities to install cooling towers. They re viewed as the most effective solution short of shutting down a plant. Intakes don t need to be so strong when they are in place.

Cooling towers are more common with nuclear plants. FirstEnergy s Davis-Besse plant in Ottawa County and DTE Energy s Fermi 2 plant in Monroe County have minimal fish kills relative to the size of their plants. Their cooling towers receive most of the credit.

But they re expensive.

Building a cooling tower costs at least $100 million, according to Mr. McCullough, who also said they cost several million more to operate.

FirstEnergy in 2007 pegged the cost at $200 million.

Cooling towers are not a cost-effective technology for addressing the impact of power plant intakes on fish, according to John Austerberry, a DTE spokesman.

Such a requirement, he said, could result in higher rates for electrical service that would not be justified or acceptable to most customers.

DTE s coal-fired power plant in Monroe is one of the nation s largest. Like Bay Shore, it does not have a cooling tower.

In self-reported data that DTE provided to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the utility said that its Monroe plant impinges about 25 million fish a year but said 95 percent of them are gizzard shad a food source for other fish, but not one with much commercial value.

DTE is paying an industry research group, the Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif., to evaluate its fish-protection technologies.

It also has turned over data on all of its power stations to the Michigan DEQ and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Mr. Austerberry said.

Contact Tom Henry at:thenry@theblade.comor 419-724-6079.



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