Legal, Ocean Protection
June 29 2011

New Rulemaking for Coastal Power Plants

by Angela Howe


Our Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is currently allowing power plants situated near water bodies to continue using a cooling system that sucks in and grinds fish, flattens them on screens - or, if they make it through that process, the fish still face boiling hot water through the “entrainment” process. Virtually no marine life survive the Once Through Cooling (“OTC”) system.  In California alone, coastal power plants withdraw cold water and discharge hot water at a rate of about 16.7 billion gallons per day, killing at a rate of 88 billion marine lives a year.  Nationally, power plants use up nearly 100 trillion gallons of ocean, lake and river water each year to absorb heat waste.  A single plant can use more than one million gallons per minute.  The killing of trillions of fish, shellfish, and other species at all life stages through this process has stressed and depleted our waters for decades and disrupts the food chain.  EPA also identified 88 threatened or endangered species at risk from cooling water intake structures. 

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) specifies that standards governing the “location, design, construction, and capacity” of cooling water intake structures must “reflect the best technology available” for “minimizing [the] adverse environmental impact[s]”.  The Surfrider Foundation does not think the OTC systems meet the requirements of 316(b) and call for a closed-loop cycle to be used for any necessary cooling water, which reduces marine life mortality by 95 to 98 percent.

After years of pressure from environmental groups including litigation, EPA recently released proposed regulations governing cooling water intake structures for existing power plants under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The proposed rule impacts an estimated 1,200 facilities nation-wide, amounting to over half the water withdrawals in the entire nation. The proposal is designed to reduce the number of marine organisms that are killed by impingement or entrainment, but in Surfrider Foundation’s opinion, it does not go far enough.

EPA is accepting comments on the proposal through July 19, 2011.

More Background:

In 2001, EPA issued national regulations identifying closed-cycle cooling as the best available technology for new power plants.  But many older plants, typically those built more than 30 years ago, still rely on antiquated and damaging once-through cooling systems.  The rule EPA proposed on April 20, 2011, is a step backward in collective efforts to safeguard ocean resources.   Basically, EPA has chosen the path of least resistance by giving permitting authority to state agencies that too often lack the resources and the ability to stand up to industry pressure on this issue.  The power companies have consistently resisted upgrading their cooling systems and have successfully avoided any regulations that would force them to modernize.  Now more than ever, a clear, focused rule is needed to modernize power plants by halting the use of destructive once-through cooling.

Prior Litigation:

Surfrider Foundation has been involved in a series of litigation battles to compel EPA to fully enforce the protections of the Clean Water Act and provision 316(b) relating to coastal power plants.  On November 22, 2010, Surfrider Foundation, Riverkeeper and other environmental organizations signed a settlement agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") that resolved two lawsuits brought against the EPA in 1993 and 2006 addressing the agency’s failure to issue regulations implementing Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act. This settlement agreement required EPA to draft these new regulations that are currently proposed for comment

Proposed Rulemaking:

Without national standards, the EPA remains in violation of the Clean Water Act  and states continue to lack the will and resources to impose use of better technologies on the power industry.  An absence of national standards will create uncertainty and delays in the protection of water bodies.

The proposed rule covers existing cooling water intake structures at power-generating, manufacturing, and industrial facilities that: (1) withdraw more that 2 million gallons of water per day; (2) use at least 25% of that water exclusively for cooling purposes; and (3) have a National Pollution Elimination Discharge System (“NPDES”) permit or are required to apply for one. The proposal addresses upper level impingement thresholds; entrainment thresholds; and requirements for new units at existing facilities.

Unfortunately, the current rule would exempt desalination plant intakes from the total volume of cooling water intakes in cases where power plants and desal plants are co-located.  The proposed rule is also weak in its second recommendation for large facilities to conduct studies for permitting requirements.  There have been dozens of studies on this technology already.  Now is the time for tightening permitting requirements and halting the destruction of coastal resources, not for asking the industry to conduct further studies.  

Furthermore, the “Commonly Asked Questions” document provided by the EPA on their website to explain more about the rulemaking is woefully misleading in its characterization of what the rule covers.  In describing which facilities will need to comply with the new rules, the EPA states: “This proposed rule affects existing power plants and manufacturing facilities that generate electricity or manufacture other goods and that also withdraw at least 2 million gallons per day of cooling water.”  However, this rule will not apply to coastal desalination plants, even if they are co-located with power plants.

The benefits of strong 316(b) regulations are high, while the costs are low.  Any changes to power industry intake technology would leave our public power grid virtually unaffected.  Any increases in electric bills would be modest, costing consumers pennies or at most a few dollars per month on household electric bills. Only the most antiquated and marginal plants would choose to close down rather than upgrade to closed-cycle cooling. Meanwhile, requiring cooling system upgrades would create jobs, improve the economy, and may even clean the air.  Transforming antiquated power plants into state-of-the-art, modern, and cleaner facilities will help the transition to a more sustainable energy supply that will help achieve our goal of healthy coasts.


The EPA must act to protect our oceans, lakes and rivers by adopting strong regulations that require the equivalent of the protections achieved by closed cycle cooling.  A final rule will be issued by July 27, 2012.  Comments are accepted until July 19, 2011.  Fill out Surfrider Foundation's action alert linked here to tell EPA what you think.