Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued final rules under the Clean Water Act Section 316(b). The new rules impact existing facilities that: (1) use cooling water intake structures designed to withdraw at least two million gallons of water per day from U.S. waters; (2) have or are required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit; and (3) use at least 25 percent of the water they withdraw exclusively for cooling purposes. Additionally, they showcase the EPA’s efforts to prevent aquatic life from being drawn or trapped by plant and factory equipment. According to EPA, the rules will likely apply to more than 1,000 facilities in sectors including electric generation plants, pulp and paper mills, chemical manufacturing plants, iron and steel manufacturing facilities, petroleum refineries, food processing plants, and aluminum manufacturing facilities. According to Nancy Stoner, EPA’s acting assistance administrator for water, “EPA is making it clear that if you have cooling water intakes you have to look at the impact on aquatic life in local waterways and take steps to minimize that impact.”
The requirements offer facilities a choice of seven technologies to prevent both fish entrainment (aquatic organisms being drawn into the facility) and impingement (aquatic organisms becoming trapped against an intake structure), which have all been in use for decades and are currently in place at more than 40 percent of the affected plants. Republicans and the power-generating sector believe the new rules will increase costs, raise electricity prices, and kill jobs. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) immediately criticized the rules and stated he would seek congressional action to overturn them. “The EPA has released another rule that threatens the affordability and reliability of America’s electricity,” Inhofe said.
The regulation disproportionately impacts power generation plants—of the approximately 1,065 facilities impacted, 544 of them are power generating plants. America’s nuclear infrastructure, consisting of 104 facilities and generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity, is particularly affected with its copious use of cooling water. The average commercial reactor in the U.S. is aged 33 years with the two oldest in service since 1969 and the last newly built reactor entering service in 1996. Although the rule allows facility owners or operators flexibility in fulfilling its “best technology available requirements,” there is an added requirement for biological studies and federal consultations as part of the permitting process—an aspect that will undoubtedly be costly, potentially unfeasible, and enough to give any energy provider an unwelcomed chill.
The new rule, effective sixty days after its publication in the Federal Register, will be implemented through the NPDES permit program. Environmental groups were hoping for more stringent requirements and will undoubtedly challenge the final rule.