OREGON, Ohio — What fishermen view as a precious natural resource is considered nothing more than inconvenient "collateral damage" by one of the nation's major power companies.
Millions of fish are killed each year as a result of hydroelectric
power generation — not just in Ohio but across the country. For decades, experts were uncertain of how severe the damage was. But now we're getting rough estimates, and the casualty list from one facility in Ohio is alarming.
Based on 16 months of sampling data collected in 2005 and 2006 at FirstEnergy's Bay Shore Power Plant on Lake Erie, experts estimate that roughly 46 million fish were swept against the intake screens (impingement) and another 14 million juvenile fish were sucked in (entrainment) and spit out.
Possibly some survived. Certainly most didn't.
Consider a 2004 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that says 550 power plants nationwide use at least 50 million gallons daily as cooling water — pulling fish, larvae and eggs into their intakes — and the severity of the problem becomes obvious.
"The more people look at the numbers, the more aghast they become. They're just flabbergasted," said Sandy Bihn, director of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association (www.westernlakeerie.org).
Bihn is leading the charge to force FirstEnergy to change its ways. Meanwhile, the Ohio EPA is considering operational alternatives for the plant. Implementation of its recommendations could be tied to the upcoming renewal of Bay Shore's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
The Ohio Division of Surface Water revealed last year that "this facility impinges and entrains more organisms than all of the other power plants in Ohio combined."
That's not surprising because it's located at the confluence of the Maumee River and the lake's Maumee Bay, arguably the most valuable spawning area for walleye and yellow perch. An estimated 24,000 walleye and 12,000 yellow perch are killed daily, according to Bihn, with total body count about 126,000.
That daily estimate includes smallmouth bass, white bass and a host of other species.
The plant uses an average of 650 million gallons per day, and during some months the volume equivalent of the entire Maumee River goes through Bay Shore.
"It tends to be in the fall when we get more of the small, juvenile fish," Bihn said.
Fish have been dying here since 1955 when the plant began operation. During the 1970s, the last time sampling data was taken, an estimated 3 percent of the fish in the river were killed, according to Bihn's organization. Based on 2005-2006 statistics, that estimate increased to 10 percent, with eight times as many larval fish destroyed.
"To catch and then eat fish, we need a license. And there are rules and penalties that trigger when more than six walleye and 25 perch are caught in a day," said Bihn. "Yet FirstEnergy pays nothing and does little to nothing to reduce the kills. It's wrong. That plant is a massive fish killer.
"It's disturbing to know that, through all these years, all these fish have been killed and nothing has been reported and nothing has been done."
Industry, of course, counters that it is producing much-needed electricity, employing people and paying taxes — all legally.
"We comply fully with the regulations in our current EPA-issued permit and will continue to do so," said Chris Eck, FirstEnergy spokesman.
"There is a new [federal] rule in the works that is expected to be enacted by this fall that will impose some limitations on our impact on aquatic life," he continued. "When that rule is released, we will find a way to comply with that."
Those news rules regarding power plant compliance with the federal Clean Water Act were supposed to be implemented in 2007, but legal battles have delayed them. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court now is considering whether economics or environmental stewardship should be the guiding force for power plants using public waters.
Not surprisingly, industry favors cost/benefit analysis, with the hope that it can prove that the electricity it provides is more valuable than the fish it kills.
"It's all about striking a balance," said Mark Durbin of FirstEnergy. "It's not just FirstEnergy. It's any utility. There are some environmental impacts on fish population, but there are also impacts on the electricity that's provided for our society and the benefits that brings."
Environmentalists and anglers argue that public fisheries must be protected and that power companies can retrofit their plants with technology to diminish and/or eliminate fish kills while still providing electricity.
"We are concerned about these numbers and believe they need to be reduced, not just because the Clean Water Act says so," said Mike McCullough of the Ohio EPA.
"If cost/benefit analysis is the determining factor, then power plants won't have to use the best technology," Bihn added. "They know they have a problem and they're lobbying extensively right now so that they won't have to change."
Bihn added that she was confronted by an industry spokesman at a public meeting earlier this year who said, "We are legally killing these fish and, besides, there are plenty of fish out there."
What she termed the "arrogance" of that remark left her enraged.
"They'd rather pay lobbyists than do anything about the fish being killed," she said.
Depending on the state's position, the EPA's new rules and a Supreme Court ruling, however, they might have to.
How To Stop The Slaughter
OREGON, Ohio — "The best solution is a cooling tower," said Sandy Bihn, director of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, referring to the mass fish kills taking place near Lake Erie.
"That would reduce fish kills by 95 percent and water use by 90 percent. And if we're lucky, that's where this is headed."
In addition to killing fish, power plants that use water to cool also release heated discharge that disrupts natural ecosystems and encourages troublesome algae blooms. A closed-cycle cooling system would dissipate the heat as it recirculates the water.
But retrofitting existing plants with cooling towers is expensive. The Ohio EPA estimated the cost at $100 million, with several million more in operating costs. FirstEnergy set the price at closer to $200 million.
"It's an expensive proposition and, quite frankly, I think there are some issues with cooling towers as well, as far as the aquatics, so there is no easy solution," said Mark Durbin of FirstEnergy. He called a cooling tower at Bay Shore "possible" but not probable in the immediate future.
"The business community and folks are dependent on the electricity being produced in a cost-effective way," he continued, adding that the EPA is trying to look at the big picture.
Should FirstEnergy and other power plants be forced to install cooling towers, another issue would be who would pay for them. The power industry would want to defer the cost to customers.
FirstEnergy, for example, would seek authorization to pass along $15 million to $30 million a year to consumers for an unspecified number of years to cover operation and capital costs. That could mean that electric rates in the Toledo area would rise 3.2 to 6.4 percent, according to the Toledo Blade newspaper.
Paul Novak of Ohio EPA said his agency would keep those costs in mind as it considers what should be required of FirstEnergy for its next permit. Other options might include screens at a cost of $13 million to $17 million and cooling ponds. The latter could be as effective as towers, but nearly 600 acres of land would be required to build them.
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