Power plant: killing fish is good

Reply Tue 8 May, 2007 06:12 am
Utility's bottom line: Killing fish a positive
Firm promotes lethal hot-water discharge

By Michael Hawthorne
Tribune staff reporter

May 8, 2007

Faced with the prospect of a multimillion-dollar tab to help revive Chicago-area rivers, the owner of four coal-fired power plants is pushing a plan that would keep the urban waterways too hot for fish to survive.

The aging Midwest Generation plants suck up nearly every drop of the Chicago and Lower Des Plaines Rivers to cool their massive equipment, then churn it back out as hot as bathwater, sometimes hotter than 100 degrees. Illinois has banned the process at newer plants because it can kill fish or discourage them from sticking around.

State regulators are proposing new temperature limits that could force the utility to spend up to $800 million on equipment upgrades, which would curb the amount of warm water pumped into the waterways. But the power company's executives contend there are more benefits than drawbacks from keeping the rivers hotter than normal.

They even suggest that killing all of the fish in the rivers might be a good thing.

The debate reflects changing attitudes about waterways that for decades have been seen as little more than industrialized sewage canals linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. Once considered off-limits to humans and wildlife alike, the rivers are the cleanest they've been in years. But federal, state and local officials say improvements in water quality might not be good enough.

Cooler water, for instance, could help make the rivers more habitable for game fish such as walleye, perch and sauger. "The conflict we're seeing now reflects dramatic differences about how these rivers should be used as we go forward," said Toby Frevert, water quality manager for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Executives at Midwest Generation, the California-based utility that bought the plants from ComEd in 1999, said the potential river improvements would be too expensive. During a recent presentation to environmental regulators, they argued that the government should give up trying to improve water quality, illustrating their point with slides showing tons of slimy garbage skimmed off intake pipes at the power plants.

Instead of making the rivers more habitable, they said, the dredged and straightened channels should be kept hot. They contend that could help prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from crossing between two of the nation's major waterways.

"Why should we make it easier for other species to make it through?" said Bill Constantelos, Midwest Generation's director of environmental policy. "These rivers were designed for barge traffic. To say they're going to become quality fisheries is more than a stretch."The utility's argument is ludicrous, several fish experts said. Asian carp in particular are drawn to warmer conditions.

Questions about water temperature are the latest wrinkle in a long-standing debate about the future of the two rivers.

More than a century has passed since the region's leaders blasted through the natural divide between the Chicago and the Des Plaines. Linking the two waterways opened an important trade route for barges loaded with grain, coal and other goods to cross between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

The elaborate construction project also reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan, an engineering feat that separated the city's drinking water from its sewage.

Most of the water in the river still is treated human and industrial waste that flows into the Lower Des Plaines at Lockport. But people steadily are returning to the waterways for recreation, encouraged by improvements in sewage treatment and flood control that have made the canals less fetid and more pleasant.

The water is clean enough that 60 species of fish can be found in some stretches, compared with five in 1970.

The four power plants along the Chicago and Lower Des Plaines were built long before burning rivers and open sewers across the nation moved Congress to approve the Clean Water Act and other modern environmental laws.

At each of the plants, water pulled from the rivers is circulated through tubes that re-condense steam that drives the electric generators. Newer plants rely on cooling towers that recycle most of the water, drawing only small amounts to make up for what's lost through evaporation.

In Chicago, the Fisk plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village on average draw a combined 760 million gallons every day, according to an Illinois EPA report.

Two other plants farther downstream suck up even more water. The Will County plant in Romeoville draws 945 million gallons a day, and the Joliet plant pumps 1.4 billion gallons daily.

Illinois banned the procedure, known as "once-through cooling," at new power plants in the early 1970s after scientists documented devastating effects on fish and other aquatic life. But older plants like the ones owned by Midwest Generation weren't affected.

"More fish should be there but aren't because of the heat from those power plants," said Peter Howe, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biologist who has studied the rivers for years. "Those temperatures are lethal."

Under the state's proposed new standards, the required water temperature would vary depending on the time of year.

During May 2006, water sucked into the Will County plant was as warm as 77 degrees and came back out as hot as 93 degrees, according to the EPA. The maximum allowable river temperature during May would be 77.3 degrees if the agency's proposal is approved by a state rulemaking board.

Summer river temperatures also would need to drop. In August 2005, the Crawford plant on average drew 88 degree water and pumped it back as hot as 105.5 degrees. The limit would be 91.9 degrees.

Midwest Generation executives complained that state environmental regulators are mulling tougher water standards a few months after the utility cut a deal to install new air-pollution controls.

"The potential cost to us is staggering," said Doug McFarlan, a company spokesman.

Illinois ratepayers wouldn't absorb Midwest Generation's costs because the company sells electricity on the open market, rather than to a defined service area like ComEd.

Few if any scientists think keeping the rivers hotter than normal would effectively deter invasive species from swimming through the waterways.

Asian carp, for instance, are native to warmer climates. The voracious family of fish ate their way north to the Illinois River after escaping from Southern fish farms, where they had been imported to help control algae.

When a panel of experts studied ways to protect the Great Lakes fishing industry from invasive species, they looked at intense heat as one option. They concluded that the most effective method, other than separating the two water systems again, was an electrical barrier near Romeoville.

"There's just no way to guarantee you could keep the water hot enough all the time to make a difference," said Mike Conlin, director of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "Besides, we want to keep improving water quality. We shouldn't be going backwards."


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Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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Walter Hinteler
Reply Tue 8 May, 2007 06:13 am
source: Chicago Tribune, 08.05.07, page A6
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