A final Environmental Protection Agency rule to protect fish and other aquatic life from cooling-water intake structures at existing powerplants and factories has received lukewarm praise from some industry groups, but environmental advocates say they are deeply disappointed in the rule, released on May 19.

The final rule will require existing powerplants to develop design and construction solutions to reduce the impact of large cooling-water intakes on local fish and other aquatic life, ranging from Chinook salmon to sea turtles.

Reed Super, principal and founder of the Super Law Group, which has represented several environmental groups in litigation with the EPA over the intake rule, told reporters on May 20 that, although the environmental groups, including Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, were still reviewing the rule, “there is a very strong likelihood that we will be back to court on this. The rule doesn’t come close to doing what the Clean Water Act requires.”

Environmental advocates have been seeking a final rule on cooling-water intake structures at existing powerplants since the 1990s. Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act requires that National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for facilities with cooling-water intake structures ensure the location, design, construction and capacity of the structures reflect “the best technology available” to minimize harmful effects to the environment. A number of environmental groups believe the best technology available is closed-cycle cooling.

Many older plants suck in huge amounts of fish and other aquatic species when cooling-water intake structures draw in large amounts of water from nearby rivers, lakes, oceans and estuaries to absorb waste heat from the powerplants.

Riverkeeper estimates that U.S. powerplants draw in up to 100 trillion gallons of water a year through cooling-water intake structures, killing billions of fish and aquatic species during the process.

In 1991, EPA issued a rule that new powerplants should install closed-cycle systems, which recirculate cooling water in towers and reduce fish kills by about 95%, according to Riverkeeper. Most modern plants built since the 1991 rule use closed-cycle cooling towers.

The rule, which is required under the Clean Water Act and was released by EPA on May 19, applies to all existing power-generating facilities and existing manufacturing and industrial facilities that withdraw more than 2 million gallons a day of water from adjacent water bodies and use at last 25% of the water they withdraw exclusively for cooling purposes. EPA says the rule covers about 544 powerplants and 521 factories in the U.S.

The requirements will be implemented through NPDES permits and, ultimately, will leave the final decision on which technologies to use to reduce fish impingement and entrainment to either the owners or operators of the individual facilities or state authorities.

Facilities that withdraw at least 125 million gallons a day are required to conduct studies to help the local permitting authority to determine what site-specific solutions will be required.

And new units on existing plants will be required to reduce the intake flow to a level similar to a closed-cycle, recirculation system, using either a closed system or other design changes to get to the equivalent reduction associated with closed-cycle cooling.

Industry groups said the final rule offers the power industry the flexibility it needs to develop solutions based on specific site needs and concerns.

Tom Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement, “Based upon our initial review of the rule, we are pleased that EPA has avoided imposing a categorical one-size-fits-all approach to compliance; has embraced significant elements of flexibility; and has acknowledged the importance of weighing costs with environmental protection.” Still, there remain significant operational and compliance challenges, he noted.

But environmental groups expressed outrage over the rule. “What the EPA has done is punted [the issue] back to the states … and codified the practice that has not worked all of these years,” Super said.