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EPA’s cooling water intake rule – another delay means more time to plan

Plants can use this extra time to get ready for the changes to come.


The US Environmental Protection Agency has again delayed finalizing the proposed standards for cooling water intake as described under section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act, this time to November 4, 2013. I can hear the collective sigh of power and manufacturing companies who will need to make the required updates to their plants, but the reality is the changes required by this new rule are inevitably coming down the pike, maybe even with more plants affected than originally assumed.

A quick background – this rule requires power and manufacturing companies who take in more than 2 million gallons of water a day for cooling purposes to adjust their water intake structures to a certain standard that minimizes impacts to aquatic wildlife. In the past, these structures have trapped or sucked in (referred to as “impingement” and “entrainment” in the rule) fish and other wildlife, which environmental organizations and others have flagged as an issue that needs regulating.

The most recent delay comes from the need to ensure that US Fish & Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service have reviewed the proposed rule in light of the Endangered Species Act. In other words, those agencies will assess how effectively the new rule will require plants to demonstrate how their water intake structures protect endangered species. The agencies can also recommend any suggestions on further actions to take beyond what’s required if affected species are becoming especially at risk.

These recommendations could possibly make some facilities that have been excluded from the rule now under its reach. Some industries, like pulp and paper, reuse their cooling water, which to date has excluded them from 316(b) enforcement. But depending on what comes of this most recent review, those plants may also have to prove their intake structures aren’t harming species, whether that’s through more biological sampling or other means.

Right now, EPA estimates 1,260 facilities are going to have to update their equipment once this rule goes into effect. As we await the November final ruling, there are a few things those facilities should be doing to prepare:

1. Informing O&M. Make sure everyone from the owners and facility managers to operations and maintenance staff understand what’s ahead, from identifying where applicable facilities are located, to what kinds of cooling water intake systems they have now, to doing some research into technology options for those systems in their plants.

2. Finding efficiencies. If a plant is already scheduled for system upgrades or changes sometime soon, hold off. Making those changes along with those required by section 316(b) probably makes more sense. While you’re at it, this may be a good time to make upgrades to systems that weren’t necessarily due for them.  For example, if the pumps were scheduled to be replaced in a few years, installing variable-speed pumps now may be the best option since they are more effective at reducing approach velocities and may be the 
technology needed to meet the 316(b) velocity requirement.

3. Budgeting. Good planning, of course, helps make for more accurate budgets. With a good idea of what it will take to upgrade your plant, you won’t be surprised by any costs of complying with the rule down the road.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more before November, but, until then, stay tuned!


Nathan Henderson is a senior associate and aquatics specialist and a 316(b) expert.

Right now, EPA estimates 1,260 facilities are going to have to update their equipment once this rule goes into effect.

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