Blogs > Docket > Riverkeeper Announces Settlement with EPA on Cooling Water Intake Regulations

Riverkeeper Announces Settlement with EPA on Cooling Water Intake Regulations

EPA to Propose Regulations on March 28

On November 22, 2010, Riverkeeper and other environmental organizations signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that resolves 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 section of the Act requires power plant operators and other large industrial water users to employ the “best technology available” for minimizing the adverse environmental impact of their cooling water intake structures.

Currently, cooling water intakes at hundreds of facilities across the country take in huge volumes of water from vital ecosystems like the Hudson River, resulting in the destruction of huge numbers of fish and other aquatic species at all life stages that are “impinged” against intake screens or “entrained” through the facility cooling system.  Decades of such impacts have contributed to declining fish populations and destabilized marine and freshwater ecosystems.  For example, Riverkeeper’s 2008 report The Status of Fish Populations and the Ecology of the Hudson concluded that ten of thirteen key Hudson River fish species are in decline, due in part to the impacts from once-through cooling systems at Indian Point and other Hudson River power plants.  In addition, the 2007 Riverkeeper Report on Entrainment and Impingement at Indian Point focuses on the severe impacts caused by Indian Point’s cooling water intake and thermal discharge on Hudson fisheries. The number of fish and other aquatic creatures that could be saved each year by stronger EPA regulations on cooling water intakes is estimated to be in the billions.

In the settlement, as recently amended, the EPA agreed to propose new regulations for existing facilities by March 28, 2011.  EPA will then take public comment on the proposed regulations.  We expect the public comment period to be 90 days.  (It is very important for interested members of the public to weigh in during the comment period.  So please check back here for more information after March 28th.)  EPA will then consider the public comments and take final action regarding the new regulations by July 27, 2012.

To protect the environment, the new regulations should set a national performance standard based on closed-cycle cooling for all industrial water users that can reasonably bear the costs of the technology. Upgrading an industrial facility from its current “once-through” cooling system to a “closed-cycle” system reduces the amount of water withdrawn and the resulting impact on aquatic life by 95-98%, drastically reducing the destruction of aquatic species and removing a long-term threat to the ecosystem permanently.

For decades, the power industry has campaigned against updating regulations to reflect improved technology and the need to protect biologically and economically important aquatic ecosystems from further damage from industrial cooling water intakes. The industry argues that more environmentally protective regulations will deal a crippling blow to the power industry, forcing power plants across the country to shut down and threatening the reliability of the nation’s electricity supply.  These arguments are a blatant attempt by the industry to mislead the public and elected officials, by distorting the truth about the regulatory process and the true economic effects of updated requirements for industrial water users.  The industry’s predictions of economic collapse and draconian government regulation harkens back to the auto industry’s response to new seat belt requirements in the 1960s, or the chemical industry’s campaign to discredit Rachel Carson and others who first pointed out the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides to public health and the environment.  While the issues are distinct, the response is similar; resist technological upgrades by casting them as unnecessary and economically devastating. The power industry’s arguments must be seen in the context of the following key facts:


  • Closed-cycle cooling is a proven, reliable technology that has been in use at power plants around the country for decades.  Nearly half the nuclear power plants currently operating use closed-cycle systems; virtually all gas-fired plants and more than 75% of coal plants built in the past 30 years use closed-cycle systems.
  • Rather than gradually adjusting and incorporating new technology into its operating fleet over the last 40 years, the power plant industry has actively fought any attempt by the EPA or individual states to require modernization of power plants’ cooling water intake systems.
  • Industry and individual plant owners will have time to plan for compliance with the rule.  Industry reports assume that all 500 power plants subject to the rule would have to retrofit to closed-cycle cooling immediately following the issuance of new regulations, without regard to the cost or potential reliability concerns. In fact, compliance with any final new regulation that EPA issues in 2012 will happen over a lengthy timeframe as individual facility permits come up for renewal, and EPA will take a hard look at the compliance costs and the electricity market as a whole to ensure that any plant closures that might occur, if any, do not adversely affect the power grid.
  • The EPA rulemaking process under this settlement provides the industry and the general public significant opportunity to comment on the draft regulations, thereby ensuring robust public participation and input.
Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
Become a Member