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Power-Plant Cooling: How Many Fish Per kWh?

EPA flounders on the Clean Water rule, while producers tackle the real enemy—shortage.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2005

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that a typical sport fisherman working the Great Lakes would pay $4.58 for the privilege of catching a single walleye/pike, but would gladly fork over $7.99 to land a trout, or as much as $11.19 for a salmon.

Sound fishy? Yet the EPA would rely heavily on these data, and other figures quite similar, to justify its proposed “Phase III” rule to regulate cooling water intake structures (CWIS) at small power plants and other similarly sized facilities, to preserve aquatic and marine life in the nation’s lakes, rivers, streams, bays, and estuaries.

The idea is to estimate the dollar benefits of reducing fish mortality through impingement (being pinned against screens or other parts of a cooling water intake structure) or entrainment (being drawn into cooling water systems and subjected to thermal, physical or chemical stresses) at cooling water intake structures. So the EPA has done more than just measure losses to the commercial fish harvest. It seeks to measure the value of unharvested fish. It seeks to calibrate the dollar value of the pleasure from fishing for fun, or at least for knowing that we could if we wanted:

“Society may value both landed and unlanded fish for reasons unrelated to their use value. Such non-use values include the value that people may hold simply for knowing these fish exist. While non-use values are difficult to quantify, EPA believes it is important to consider such value.”

(See, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System — Proposed Regulations to Establish Requirements for Cooling Water Intake Structures at Phase III Facilities, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Docket OW-2004-002 [Phase III Rule], 69 Fed.Reg. 68444, at page 68514, Nov. 24, 2004. See p. 68517 for discussion of valuation of individual fish .)

In fact, if you don’t count this “non-use” value for all those walleye, trout, and salmon that got away, then the costs of complying with the Phase III rule just plain overrule the meager commercial benefits.

And so in early spring, after the deadline had passed for the general public to submit comments on the proposed rule, the EPA sought authority from the Office of Management and Budget to go on a fishing expedition to collect more evidence to bolster its theory. As the agency said, it would begin conducting as many as a dozen focus groups to “better understand the public’s perceptions of fishery resources.” ( See, 70 Fed. Reg. 15079, March 24, 2005. )

When it comes back with new results, the EPA may well attempt to build a new cost-benefit case for its proposed rule. So stay tuned.

All the same, this piquant debate over the economic justifications for environmental protection should not obscure the fact that water usage by power plants deserves close examination on its own merits, for

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