Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Erie water keeper: Fish lost to power plant ops

By Deborah WeisbergContributing Writer

Maumee, Ohio – Although Lake Erie’s shallow western basin is one
of the fishiest spots in the Great Lakes, it loses millions of
walleyes, perch, bass, shiners, shad, and other species every day
to power plant cooling systems.

That’s the alarm being sounded by Western Lake Erie Water Keeper
Sandy Bihn of Oregon, Ohio, who is stepping up her crusade to hold
First Energy Bayshore on the famed Maumee River, as well as
Consumers Power and Detroit Edison, more accountable.

‘A lot of fish are getting killed during the intake of water
used to cool their coal-burning engines,’ said Bihn. ‘You can’t
appreciate the enormity or importance of it until you understand
the watershed.’

While the average depth of Lake Erie is 62 feet, the western
basin is just 24 feet deep, and it is fed by the Maumee River,
which has the best early-season walleye runs – as well as the
biggest walleye spawn – in the Great Lakes and perhaps in the

‘Old-timers say there was a time you could walk across the fish
on the Maumee,’ said Bihn. ‘It’s still the Great Lake’s best
nursery water – muddy, shallow and incredibly nutrient rich.’

But, the basin would yield billions more walleyes and other
species if it weren’t for power plants killing eggs, larvae, and
juvenile fish during the constant intake of water used for engine
cooling, Bihn said. Eggs and larvae get entrained, or boiled to
death, whereas young fish or smaller species get impinged, or
smashed, against intake screens.

The entire food chain, from emerald shiners and other forage
species to coveted sport fish, are affected, Bihn said, and the
worst offender is First Energy Bayshore, whose water intake is at
the mouth of the Maumee. Built half a century ago, the Bayshore
plant provides power to more than half a million homes in northwest

‘There have been no studies of the impact on fish since the
1970s with this company,’ said Bihn, ‘and back then the fish kills
were in the hundreds of millions. Since then, energy production has
increased by about 50 percent, so you can bet the fish kills have
increased, too.’

More than a decade ago, river keepers and water keepers from
several states sued the Environmental Protection Agency, forcing it
to tighten regulations around water intake at power plants. Some
East Coast states joined in the suit but Ohio did not. As a result,
new rules adopted in 2004 would require plants to update fish kill
studies, and implement compliance measures that would reduce
impingement by 85 to 90 percent and entrainment by 65 to 90
percent. Options included slowing the velocity of intake water,
installing more effective screens at intake canals, mitigating
damage with fish stockings or environmental improvements, and
retrofitting old plants with cooling towers, which is the most
technologically effective.

But cooling towers also are the most expensive, and the EPA rule
gave plant operators an out if they could demonstrate that
retrofitting outweighed potential profits.

River Keepers Inc. sued the EPA over the cost-benefit clause, as
well as the mitigation option, and the court struck down both in
January. Until the EPA appeals the court order or crafts a new,
tougher rule, power plants only have to meet state, and not
federal, performance standards, according to Mike McCullough, an
environmental specialist with the EPA.

‘The EPA has told states if they’d like to still impose
requirements they can do that in their best professional judgment,’
said McCullough. ‘But, it’s back to the way states have been
requiring impingement and entrainment at these facilities since the

McCullough said power plants on the Great Lakes must operate
under higher standards than those on inland waters, and a new power
plant probably wouldn’t be allowed on the Maumee where Bayshore is

‘We have special concerns about Bayshore,’ he said. ‘In general,
facilities on Lake Erie are somewhat a different matter than those
on inland waters, because they have much higher rates of
impingement and entrainment. And entrainment requires a more
difficult calculation than impingement.’

With the court throwing out the recent EPA rule, Bayshore and
other companies also can suspend the fish kill studies that were to
have been completed by next year.

Mark Durbin, a spokesman for First Energy, said Bayshore is in
the process of interpreting its fish kill studies and not ready to
release the data.

‘We’ve heard from a lot of environmental folks over the years,’
said Durbin, whose company operates 18 power plants in Ohio,
Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. ‘We have to strike a balance between
the economics of the service we provide and environmental

‘With the new rule remanded, we’re back to where we started, but
we’re fully compliant,’ he said.

The EPA’s McCullough said Bayshore is indeed compliant with the

‘Compliant, yes,’ he said. ‘But, they’re not being

Pro-active is something Bihn also would like to see.

‘If First Energy would count the fish and tell us what’s going
on instead of being secretive, that would be wonderful,’ she

Aside from fish kills, Bihn and other watchdogs have cited
concerns about thermal discharge, especially since the western
basin’s shallowness already makes it warmer than the rest of Erie.
Water comes out of the plant five to eight degrees higher than the
rest of the lake and sits in a cove until it gradually flows back
into the lake.

‘It’s difficult to demonstrate long-term impact of warm water
discharge into the basin, but there’s the possibility,’ said
McCullough. ‘It has been the concern of folks who live in the
vicinity of Bayshore.’

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