11/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Power Plants Don't Have to Suck (Literally)

For decades, electric power plants have quietly preyed on America's waterways and devoured our fisheries, but their actions have largely escaped government accountability. Now - after years of successful litigation brought by environmental groups - the federal Environmental Protection Agency and many states like California have the opportunity to do something meaningful to prevent this senseless slaughter.

Experts have long known that cooling water intake structures operated by the electric utility industry are "the single largest predators of our Nation's waters." Collectively, the power industry sucks in approximately 80 trillion gallons of water annually to cool their equipment - a number so staggering it is equivalent to four times the amount of water in all of the Chesapeake Bay.

In the process of using this water for cooling, power plants kill on a massive scale fish, larvae and other aquatic organisms - and often do so in sensitive or important spawning areas. These organisms are mangled on grates or superheated inside the power plants. And while a fisher might pay $40 or more a year for a local fishing license that limits with exacting specificity what kind and how much of a species he or she can catch, the power industry has an unbridled license-to-kill unlike anything seen in a summer action movie.

In New Jersey, the Salem Nuclear Plant - the nation's largest user of cooling water - withdraws more than 3 billion gallons of water per day from Delaware Bay, killing an estimated 845 million fish a year.

Combined, the 19 California plants using antiquated, once-through cooling technology are allowed to suck in 16 billion gallons of sea water every day and kill an estimated 79 billion fish, larvae and other marine life - including two dozen sea lions and a dozen seals - annually.

The Bay Shore power plant in Ohio kills 46 million Lake Erie fish and sucks in another 2 billion larvae a year.

This killing surpasses many types of commercial and recreational fishing in some areas, and is completely unnecessary. Widely available and affordable technologies reuse and recycle cooling water, preventing fish kills almost entirely.

Most new power plants use closed-cycle cooling, which recirculates water and can reduce fish mortality by 95% or more. Even better, dry cooling technology is currently used at dozens of power plants in the U.S. and hundreds worldwide. According to the environmental group Riverkeeper, which for years has led the environmental effort to modernize the nation's power plants, for every 10,000 fish killed by a once-through cooling plant, about 9,996 can be saved by dry cooling.

The costs can also be reasonably borne by industry. In Massachusetts, for example, the Brayton Point power plant, which provides approximately 6% of New England's electricity and fought improvements for years, is currently upgrading its plant at the modest expense to ratepayers of 6 to 18 cents a month. This revelation prompted one EPA official to note that the cost of compliance when added to other upgrades at the plant was less than the price of the postage stamp needed to mail the monthly electric bill.

But nearly 40 years after Congress first sought to solve this problem, the power industry continues its massive ecological destruction. Nationally, hundreds of outdated once-through cooling power plants remain on both fresh waterways and along our coasts.

It is time for EPA and the states to act and to do so definitively.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year set the stage for new rules from EPA on the issue, and those rules should be forthcoming during President Obama's tenure. Ahead of these new rules, California stands poised to be a leader on this issue like it has on so many other environmental initiatives. A recent proposal by the California State Water Resources Control Board to phase out once-through cooling has a chance to end this pointless destruction along the state's entire coast. But while the intentions of the proposal are laudable and should be supported, the current draft still suffers from loopholes big enough to swallow a whale.

California should seize this opportunity and set a strong example by making clear the need to upgrade all power plants to the best technology available. No more excuses. No more delay. The federal government then should follow that lead and require modern technologies such as closed-cycle and dry cooling that drastically reduce the impact on our waterways.

If our current national situation has taught us anything it is that we can no longer take the seemingly endless wealth of this great country for granted. Our national assets include the bounty of our fisheries, and EPA and the states need to put a stop to this appalling and illegal waste.

New York City-based attorney Reed Super and Los Angeles-based marine biologist Tom Ford contributed to this post.