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EPA and MA DEP Issue New Draft Permit to Reduce Environmental Damage to Mount Hope Bay from Brayton Point Power Plant

Release Date: 07/22/2002
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

BOSTON – Capping over five years of extensive study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) today issued a new draft water discharge permit for the Brayton Point power plant that would substantially reduce the Somerset, MA facility's environmental impacts on Mount Hope Bay.

The jointly issued draft permit, which is subject to a 45-day public comment period, would substantially limit the power plant's water withdrawals from the bay and heated water discharges back into the bay. The fossil fuel-burning power plant, owned by the PG&E National Energy Group, currently withdraws up to one billion gallons a day of water from Mount Hope Bay and discharges it back into the bay at temperatures up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. Withdrawals and discharges such as this require a permit under the federal Clean Water Act which was enacted in 1972 to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of U.S. waters.

The new draft permit specifically proposes that the Brayton Point Station:

    • reduce its annual heat discharge to the estuary by 96 percent from 42 trillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) per year to 1.7 trillion BTUs per year
    • reduce its water withdrawal from the bay by approximately 94 percent, from nearly one billion gallons per day to 56 million gallons per day.
"The science shows that Brayton Point has compromised the Mount Hope Bay ecosystem and that stronger controls are needed to reduce those impacts, particularly in regard to water withdrawals and warm-water discharges," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. "These tougher limits, proposed by EPA and Massachusetts, and supported by Rhode Island, will substantially reduce the power plant's impact on the bay and give the struggling fish populations a better opportunity to recover. We look forward to working with PG&E to implement this new permit so that this valuable public resource can be restored."

"Unless major reductions are made in the plant's cooling water withdrawals and thermal discharges, the Mount Hope Bay fishery will likely never recover," added Lauren A. Liss, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "The limits proposed in today's new draft permit are designed to help allow that recovery, while enabling the Brayton Point Station to continue operating as the largest fossil fuel-burning electrical generator in New England."

"This is a wonderful day for Mount Hope Bay and the entire Narragansett Bay watershed," added Jan H. Reitsma, director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. "The issuance of this draft permit is a huge step forward in the long-standing collaborative effort to address the environmental harm caused by the Brayton Point Station. We have studied the impacts, and pinpointed the source, and now, thanks to the hard work by EPA and MA DEP, as well as the significant contributions from RI DEM staff, the legal framework is in place to resolve the problem once and for all. I hope and expect PG&E will prove itself to be a good corporate citizen and abide by the terms of the permit."

The draft permit will be subject to extensive public review and comment, beginning with public information meetings Aug. 5 in Somerset and Aug. 6 in Bristol, RI. Formal public hearings will be held Aug. 26 in Somerset and Aug. 27 in Bristol, RI. The permit is available on the agency's web site at http://www.epa.gov/region1/braytonpoint.

The Brayton Point Station, by far the largest industrial source affecting the Mount Hope Bay estuary, currently relies on a "once through" cooling system in which bay water is circulated through the plant's cooling system, heated to high temperatures, and discharged back into the bay at temperatures up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. These discharges drastically alter the thermal profile of the water body, thus making the bay at times inhospitable to native fish species, interfering with normal fish migration and encouraging the proliferation of nuisance species such as comb jellies and blue-green algae.

In addition, water the power plant takes from the bay for cooling contains billions of fish eggs, larvae and juveniles, most or all of which are destroyed when they are pulled into the facility and subjected to severe physical and chemical impacts as well as extreme water temperatures.

Mount Hope Bay, which is bordered by Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is an important part of the Narragansett Bay estuary, a designated estuary of national environmental significance. At one time, Mount Hope Bay was a productive nursery area and an excellent habitat for fish. But research conducted by RI DEM, other regulatory agencies and even PG&E has shown that its fish populations are in a state of collapse.

Populations of numerous species have declined to drastically low levels, including popular commercial and recreational fish, such as winter flounder and tautog, as well as species that are not commonly fished but are ecologically significant, such as hogchoker and windowpane. Strict fishing restrictions on recreational and commercial fishing in Mount Hope Bay have been in place for many years, but the fishery has not recovered. In contrast, similar restrictions imposed in adjacent Narragansett Bay have led to modest recoveries of such fish as winter flounder and tautog.

EPA scientists believe that the fishery decline began by the early 1970s, but accelerated dramatically after 1984. Brayton Point Station began operations in the 1960s with three open-cycle, or "once through," cooling units. In July 1984, it converted a previously closed-cycle unit to open-cycle, increasing the plant's withdrawal of cooling water from the bay and discharge of heated water to the bay by approximately 45 percent. Since that conversion, the already deteriorating fishery collapsed precipitously.

The draft permit is the result of extensive study by EPA, DEP and DEM, including a review of dozens of scientific reports about Mount Hope Bay and extensive analysis of technological alternatives for the power plant. EPA also evaluated the expense of the technological improvements that will likely be needed to meet the permit conditions and the significance of the environmental improvements that would be provided. The agency's overall conclusion was that the new technologies are affordable and that the environmental improvements justify the cost.

"Brayton Point can reduce its harm to the bay, while continuing to generate safe, affordable electricity for New England, simply by updating its cooling system with well-established, modern cooling technologies that slash water needs and thermal discharges," Varney said. "The cost of making these improvements should add no more than three to 13 cents a month to the average household electric bill. That's a worthwhile expense considering what's at stake in restoring this threatened estuary."

Improvements at Brayton Point Station will complement other efforts already in place or underway to improve water quality and the fishery in Mount Hope Bay, such as:

    • strict fishing restrictions imposed by both Massachusetts and Rhode Island;
    • sewage treatment plant improvements by the City of Fall River;
    • a publicly funded $150 million Combined Sewer Overflow abatement program for Fall River.
Reducing harm from Brayton Point Station, combined with these and other efforts, will give the fish populations a chance to rebound and eventually allow fishing restrictions to be relaxed.

Both EPA Regional Administrator Varney and MA DEP Commissioner Liss emphasized that the proposed permit is a draft and is subject to change based on EPA review of comments and information submitted by the public.

"We have already worked long and hard to carefully consider the broad range of information and arguments presented by the company, as well as the interested public," Varney said. "We look forward to doing the same with the comments we receive on the draft permit."

Public Information meetings on the draft permit will be held on the following dates:

    • 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5, at Old Town Hall, 1478 County St. (Route 138) in Somerset, MA
    • 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the Mount Hope High School Auditorium, 199 Chestnut St. in Bristol, RI.
Public hearings will be held on:
    • 7 p.m. Monday, Aug, 26, at Old Town Hall in Somerset, MA
    • 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Mount Hope High School Auditorium in Bristol, RI.
In addition, EPA will hold a 45-day public comment period, from July 22, 2002, through Sept. 4, 2002, to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the draft permit. EPA will consider and respond in writing to all comments received on the draft permit during this public comment period. Comments on the proposed permit (postmarked no later than Sept. 4, 2002) can be mailed to: Damien Houlihan, Project Manager, One Congress Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02114; or sent via fax to (617) 918-1505; or by e-mail to houlihan.damien@.epa.gov.

The draft permit and key documents underlying it will be available for review as of July 22, 2002 at the following locations, as well as on the world wide web at http://www.epa.gov/region01

Somerset Public Library
1464 County St.
Somerset MA
508-646-2829

Rogers Free Library
525 Hope St.
Bristol RI
401-253-6948

EPA Records Center
1 Congress St.
Boston MA
617-918-1440