THE BLOG

How to Save One Million Fish Every Hour

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This post was originally published on The Green Fork

As 2009 drew to a close, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) quietly issued a decision that will dramatically decrease the destruction of fish within Long Island's south shore estuary. Tucked into the large expanse of salt marshes there, the E.F. Barrett Power Station can silently kill more than one billion fish and other marine life specimens every year.

Of the billion killed each year by the five-decades-old power plant, more than 30 million are winter flounder, a species whose numbers are today at a fraction of their historic levels due to habitat loss and overfishing. In fact, the stocks are so decimated that last year the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission required New York and other Mid-Atlantic states to impose drastic reductions to their commercial and recreational winter flounder harvest. Meanwhile, the owners of antiquated power plants have been allowed to recklessly destroy aquatic life, virtually thumbing their noses at the highly regulated commercial and recreational fishing industry, and at taxpayers who have invested billions of dollars in the restoration of the nation's rivers, lakes and oceans. The Barrett station alone accounts for 40 percent of the winter flounder destroyed by New York's power plants.

So we were thrilled to learn on December 23 that Barrett's owner - currently National Grid - will be required to install equipment that will drastically reduce the plant's harm to marine life. The bad news is that Barrett is not the only culprit on Long Island; the region's five thermoelectric power plants together can destroy 10.6 billion marine organisms every year, or more than one million every hour.

So how is it that a power plant can so efficiently devour fish? It all comes down to cooling. Power plants must cool the steam used to turn their turbines and produce electricity. As a result, they require large quantities of water to cool the equipment and keep everything running smoothly and safely. For example, the E.F. Barrett plant sucks in nearly 300 million gallons of estuarine water brimming with microscopic life every day. Fish eggs, larvae and plankton, all of which are essential to the aquatic food chain, are vacuumed into intake pipes, exposed to extremely hot water and toxic chemicals, and battered about by mechanical equipment. Few, if any, survive. Larger fish and other marine life that drift into the powerful currents rushing into the plants' intake structures become trapped on screens intended to keep them out of the cooling system, and are injured and sometimes killed as a result.

For some it's easy to dismiss the death of billions of eggs and larvae because the fact is that very few survive to adulthood. Most fish in their early life stages are eaten by other animals, starve, or die from exposure to pollution or shifting water temperatures. But just because an egg doesn't grow to eventually end up on the end of a fishing line doesn't negate its importance. Eggs and larvae are a critical source of food for birds, mammals and other fish, and eggs that survive to hatch as young fish not only serve as prey for other wildlife, but become important predators themselves.

The solution is simple: destructive, antiquated cooling systems that simply withdraw and then discharge water - called "once-through" cooling - can be replaced by systems that recycle their used cooling water in what's called a "closed cycle" system - much like a car radiator. The result is a stunning 95 percent drop in the amount of water that the plant needs to withdraw and, in turn, a 95 percent drop in the amount of aquatic wildlife harmed and killed by the plant. In fact, if any of the Long Island power plants were built today, they would be required to use this technology.

The primary reason the carnage has been allowed to continue is a lack of federal leadership. According to the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have created regulations that require all existing power plants to use the "best technology available" to minimize the destruction of aquatic life. In other words, the EPA should require closed cycle cooling. However, weak draft regulations and a resulting series of lawsuits have left us where we are today: with the EPA trying, once more, to piece together a new set of rules to compel power plants to end their environmental destruction.

But on Long Island, local groups aren't waiting for the EPA to act. Organizations including Citizens Campaign for the Environment and Network for New Energy Choices (the group I work for) are spearheading a campaign to stop the slaughter of Long Island's marine life by all five of the region's power plants. Using New York's ongoing wastewater permit renewal review of the plants as an opportunity to demand change, we have called on the DEC to require National Grid to replace its plants' antiquated once-through cooling systems with closed-cycle cooling.

Clearly DEC is listening. With its year-end decision to require closed cycle cooling at the E.F. Barrett plant, the state may save over a billion Long Island fish every year.