Cooling System Decision Pending
By Roger Witherspoon
August 3, 2003
The Journal News
Plants may need to modify for safety of fish in Hudson
State environmental officials will cap three decades of debate in the fall by deciding
if the Hudson River can indefinitely sustain the annual loss of billions of fish and
plants, a byproduct of power plants' electric generating process, or if plant owners
must spend billions of dollars developing new cooling systems.
The decision will pit the economically unmeasurable value of the earliest part of the
river's food chain - baby fish, eggs, small plants and microscopic organisms - against
the economic interests of one of the region's major power resources. A state study
has found that the most ecologically sound cooling systems reduce a plant's
effectiveness, cutting available electricity during peak periods by 200 megawatts -
enough to power about 200,000 homes.
Environmental activists say the choice should be easy.
"You cannot measure the value of these resources," said David Gordon of the
environmental group Riverkeeper. "The Clean Water Act requires industries to use
the `best technology available to minimize adverse environmental impact.' Congress
made that decision in 1972. This is 30 years later, and it should have been done
The power industry contends that it is not harming the river to the extent claimed by
"Our studies indicate we have not impacted the adult populations on the river," said
Jim Steets, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the Indian Point
nuclear power plants in Buchanan. "If it has minimal impacts on the river, it seems
pointless to add a cooling system that would have different types of impacts, is
expensive, would reduce our output and add to electricity costs. It just doesn't make
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is under court order to decide
by Nov. 14 whether to issue discharge permits for Indian Point, the Bowline Point
Steam Electric Generating Station in West Haverstraw and the Roseton Generating
Station in Newburgh. The Clean Water Act requires industries to have permits to
pollute waterways, and the hot water discharged into the Hudson by these power
plants is considered a form of pollution.
The plants last received their five-year discharge permits in 1982 and have operated
without updated permits ever since, while the state studied the issue. Indian Point,
Roseton and Bowline are the first-, sixth-, and seventh-largest users of water in the
state, respectively, taking in 1.69 trillion gallons annually.
At issue is the "once through" system used to cool steam that turns the plants' giant
electric-generating turbines. The plants draw water directly from the river, pump it
through heat exchangers to cool the steam, and return the hot water to the river.
Power plants designed 30 to 40 years ago were sited on rivers because of the free
abundant water for cooling and the ability to conveniently deliver fuel by barge.
Back then, "Concerns regarding harmful impacts on fish populations were usually a
secondary consideration," said a final environmental impact statement released last
month by the DEC.
The DEC report found that studies of five of the more than 100 species of fish in the
Hudson showed that the power plants killed nearly 1.5 billion of those fish annually,
as well as fish eggs, larvae and plant life that are critical to the river's food chain.
The smallest organisms, which flow with the water into the cooling system, die as
the water is heated. Larger fish that get drawn into the plants are blocked by a
filtering system that eventually deposits them back into the river. The state found
that up to half of those fish die in the process from the force of the water pinning
them to the filters.
The plants also discharge heated water into the river, forming a thermal barrier that
some passing fish cannot survive, according to the state's analysis. Federal law
requires companies to use the "best technology available" to prevent fish and plants
from being killed inside their operations. There is a less stringent standard for
ecosystems damaged by the thermal discharge.
The DEC already has determined that the most effective remedy is to retrofit each
plant with a "closed-cycle" cooling system, the equivalent of an industrial radiator
that continually recycles the plants' cooling water. The recycled water would be
hotter than the fresh water from the river, though, and as a result, there would be a
decrease in plant efficiency ranging from 2.9 percent at Bowline to 7.3 percent at
Indian Point during peak periods.
"If you were to try and backfit a system like this, the costs would be enormous,"
Steets said. "They are probably prohibitive. It would cost several hundred million
dollars for cooling towers, and we would lose a lot of power."
Bowline spokesman Louis Friscoe said the closed-cycle system could not be applied
to every facility.
"We don't have available space for cooling-tower technology unless you start to fill
in the river to make land accessible to put a tower on, and that isn't likely." Friscoe
said. "You are talking about retrofitting an older plant, which is difficult, if not
impossible, to do."
Earlier this year, the DEC allowed the Lovett Generating Plant in Stony Point to
experiment with a Gunderboom in Tompkins Cove, a fine mesh screen designed to
block baby fish and fish eggs. Use of these screens, the state report said, is nearly as
effective as the closed-cycle cooling. As a result, the state has proposed granting the
Danskammer Generating Station in Newburgh a permit to use the screens for at least
five years, and may propose the same for the larger Hudson River plants.
"The experiment worked well enough that the state was convinced it was a viable
technology," said Friscoe, spokesman for the Mirant Corp., which owns both
Bowline and Lovett.
The experiment was not flawless, however. Barnacles and small plant life found the
mesh a perfect place to breed.
"In just 29 days, there was fouling on the Gunderbooms between 60 percent and 95
percent," Riverkeeper's Gordon said. "The experiment indicated to us that the
Gunderboom is going to fail over the long term."
Reach Roger Witherspoon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-696-8566.