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Hotter power plant discharges threaten aquatic life

August 21, 2012 at 10:08 AM

The Associated Press

CHICAGO — Illinois power plants have been releasing massive amounts of hot water into Illinois lakes and rivers that are already stressed by this summer’s intense heat and drought, a move the industry says is needed to maintain adequate power supplies but environmentalists say poses dangers to aquatic life.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has granted power plants special exemptions to release hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day at temperatures close to 100 degrees, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday. That can cause problems for temperature-sensitive fish, which have been swimming deeper to find cooler water or simply leaving certain areas.

Both coal-fired and nuclear power plants draw water from rivers and lakes to create electricity and cool equipment, then put it back in nearby waterways. Plant operators are supposed to let the water cool to 90 degrees or lower first, but that has been difficult this summer because the incoming water is already hotter than usual. The EPA has issued waivers to four coal-fired and four nuclear plants this summer allowing discharge water up to 97 degrees

Plant operators say they must keep producing electricity to meet demand and ensure sensitive populations, such as the sick and elderly, can stay cool.

“Do you want people to start dying, or do you want to save some fish?” said Julia Wozniak of Midwest Generation.

But Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office, said plants should power down instead, because there is plenty of electricity to serve Illinois.

“Illinois exports energy; we have energy security,” he said. “The powering down is not a threat to energy security.”

The IEPA said it largely has relied on the plants and grid operators to say whether shutting down a facility would lead to widespread power outages.

Industry analysts say plant operators have financial incentives to keep plants running, because they could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a day by powering down.

“Obviously we’re in the business to generate power, and we don’t get paid if we don’t do that,” Wozniak said.

The IEPA said state waterways, already warmer than normal because of this summer’s extreme weather, have shown no signs of serious damage from the discharges. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources said there have been a record number of fish kills, but none has been linked directly to power plant discharges.

“We’ve seen fish kills everywhere this summer. It’s not anything that can be helped,” said Debbie Bruce, chief of the DNR fisheries division.

Illinois nuclear plants also are being watched closely to ensure that the water they’re drawing into the plants is not too hot — a problem that has caused plants in other states to power down this summer.

Braidwood Nuclear Plant in Will County had to obtain special permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in July to continue operating when temperatures in its cooling lake crept into the upper 90s. Plants are supposed to shut down if cooling ponds reach 100 degrees unless the company “makes a really strong case to the NRC,” agency spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said. 

The NRC also is monitoring the Dresden nuclear plant in Grundy County and the Quad City stations in Rock Island County, where cooling pond temperatures approached the limits.

The agency says the safety of the plants has not been challenged, but that the only concerns are from operational and environmental standpoints.

CWLP not among plants seeking permits

City Water, Light and Power has not requested any permits for additional thermal discharge, according to spokeswoman Amber Sabin.

Dallman generators 31, 32 and 33 all discharge water into the lake as part of the cooling process, Sabin said. The city’s newest unit, Dallman 4, does not.

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