First Energy, think green


So, what to do about First Energy's Bay Shore Power Plant, the fish-killingest generating station in Ohio?

The numbers and kinds of fish sucked into the Bay Shore water intake, made public in the last two weeks, are staggering. Bay Shore kills more fish than all the other plants in Ohio combined.

Nearly 78,000 walleye, 123,000 yellow perch, more than 24 million emerald shiners, the prime food for walleye and perch. The list goes on. What, indeed, to do?

After all, the plant sits on the fertile fish nursery and spawning grounds of Maumee Bay at the mouth of the Maumee River, the latter itself the strongest walleye-spawning stream on Lake Erie. The bay and river complex joins with the western basin's offshore reef complex as the most productive walleye grounds on earth.

Indeed, First Energy today might not be able to build on the Bay Shore site, as it did 54 years ago in a less-enlightened era.

The best-case scenario from a resource-conservation perspective, would be to build a cooling tower and effectively reduce the killing by up to 90 percent. Got a spare $100 million?

Cut the check and the issue goes away. But fixing the problem is not going to go away. The check will not be cut.

It says here the issue will drag on for years still and ultimately will be settled by a judge, probably a federal judge, who likely will render a decision no one will be happy with. How can one know this? It already has happened.

Proposed federal fish-kill remedies under the Clean Water Act at some 550 power plants around the country, including Bay Shore, were proposed in 2004 and were supposed to go into effect in 2007. All was nixed by a federal judge.

So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rewrote its proposed rules with an eye to sidestepping the legal hurdles. Those rules will be announced sometime "later this year," an agency spokesman in Washington said this week. But that just starts the legal ball rolling, and it rolls at the speed of a flat tire.

A public comment period, hearings, meetings, negotiations, protests, and any legal challenges could eat up years and it still likely will end up before a judge.

Meantime, the U.S. EPA has granted the Ohio EPA authority to review and reissue what in effect is Bay Shore's license to kill fish. That permit, with conditions on controlling or mitigating fish kills, may be out this summer. To its credit, the OEPA under the Strickland administration is trying to do the right thing, to recognize a problem and try to mitigate it.

But do you think that First Energy executives will agree to a permit if it means spending tens of millions on the fix?

And then there is the Ohio River hydroelectric power plant experience. Plants down there kill fish too. The state succeeded in having fish-kill restitution put into those plant operating permits. Know what happened? The plants ultimately ignored paying up, the state took them to court, and the judges demanded that the state prove that fish kills damaged the fisheries.

Scientifically proving that fish kills do lasting harm to a resource is complex and scientifically tricky, bordering on the impossible, at least from a legal perspective.

Just that can happen with Bay Shore. Especially when it is understood that those 78,000 dead walleyes every year are not the 15-inchers hooked by fishermen upstream in March and April. They are not even six-inchers that show up in September from the previous spring's hatch.

A strong case can be made that six and 15-inch and larger walleye, or other adult fish, simply swim away from Bay Shore's intake channel and that fish that the plant is killing are juveniles, and larvae and eggs, the latter of which may or may not even be alive when impinged or entrained on the plant's screens.

Also, the reproductive strategy of fish in general - to dump billions of eggs and leave it for a small percentage to hatch and survive to adulthood - makes a case against Bay Shore that much tougher. Untold billions of walleye eggs, larvae, and fry die at large lakewide every year.

During Bay Shore's tenure on Maumee Bay, western Lake Erie has rebounded into the walleye capital of the world. Care to argue that one in terms of Bay Shore's impact? The tough nut to crack is proving the harm in lost little fish; the task is nightmarish.

Of course wasting such a sizeable resource, as is being done in the fish-kills, is a shame. Of course something better than business as usual is the right thing, the ethical thing, to do.

But likely the best the state realistically will get is to have Bay Shore agree to best management practices under its pending permit. That in itself would be an improvement, seeing as how the utility has done next to nothing to improve the fish-kill side of the plant in at least 41 years.

Is this situatioin rankling, aggravating, infuriating? You bet it is. It is irritating that a little guy, an individual fisherman has to pay $90 to $130 in a local court for putting just one extra walleye - admittedly a mature fish, not a two-inch juvenile - on a stringer, and yet see a big utility get a free pass, even a license to kill, and pay nothing.

This is not excusing a misbehaving fisherman. Scofflaws need to be caught, convicted, penalized - big or small, including those who violate the spirit if not the letter of the law.

First Energy is missing a golden opportunity here to show itself a good neighbor and a green citizen. It could announce a committee to study the fish-kill problem and come up with relatively cost-effective tweaks - say, shutting down for maintenance during the peak of the spawning runs.

Who knows what such efforts might produce in fish savings or offsets instead of fish kills as usual? Such a show of good faith would go far for public relations.