A couple of weeks ago, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental law firm that sues the US government on behalf of the environment, filed a suit in federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The CBD allege that outdated, “once-through” water cooling intake structures are responsible for the deaths of sea turtles and other protected species. This suit is being supported by organizations such as the Sierra Club, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Waterkeeper Alliance, and several others.

Endangered Sea Turtle

The idea behind power plant cooling systems is pretty straightforward: water that comes into the plant acquires heat from the electricity production process, and the plant returns that heated water back to where it came from; namely, the ocean. In the press release, the CBD noted that billions of fish and trillions of other sea-dwelling creatures die every year thanks to the current water intake structures. More deaths occur thanks to the super-heated water that’s discharged into waterways from the cooling tanks, and that unnaturally hot water has also wreaked havoc on coastal ecosystem for years. Endangered species such as sea turtles have been greatly affected, as have orcas (killer whales), salmon, trout, and Hudson River sturgeon, and it has been estimated that some of the cooling systems have been responsible for more fish deaths than those numbered by the fishing industry.

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Power Plant on River

Senior Managing Attorney for the Sierra Club Eric Huber pointed out that hundreds of power plants across the U.S. have been using antiquated cooling systems for decades. These systems kill untold numbers of endangered species like sea turtles and seals, while simultaneously destroying the critical habitats of many aquatic species. The federal wildlife agencies are meant to protect these species, but in this case they’ve set up a system where this habitat loss and damage will continue indefinitely without the measures needed to save them.

Readily available tools exist to update these cooling systems and prevent these unnecessary animal deaths. Outdated cooling water intakes on Florida’s Gulf Coast are massive killers of aquatic natural resources. If regulators fully account for the costs associated with these methods of cooling, they would institute cooling systems that would mostly eliminate these deadly water intakes, said Justin Bloom, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper.

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Atlantic Sturgeon

Hudson Riverkeeper program director Phillip Musegaas chose to make his comment based on the status quo society we live in and what he thinks are the real reasons for the lack of regulation. “On the Hudson River,” he said, “antiquated and destructive industrial cooling water intakes result in the deaths of many endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon; iconic long-lived species whose existence requires the attention of the federal agencies supposedly ensuring their future. Unfortunately, these same regulatory agencies have ignored their legal and scientific responsibility in order to maintain the status quo.”

So the lack of action we’re seeing isn’t because the technologies don’t exist or that they’re hard to find, but because the regulators who are supposed to be controlling these industries are instead letting them do whatever they want, continuing our deadly fossil fuel economy and furthering our path on the road to climate change. If nothing else, this lawsuit will demonstrate the cohesiveness of the environmental movement and the power of the ripple effect. When one industry stands to destroy so much, everyone else needs to come together. In other news, the heated water provided by the cooling systems is a great place for manatees to hang out. So it’s either manatees or sea turtles. As environmentalists, it seems we can only win so much.

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