Does EPA’s Clean Power Plan Endanger Manatees?

by Marlo Lewis on June 16, 2015

in Blog

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The law of unintended consequences is a harsh mistress. The Clean Power Plan (CPP), a policy touted by EPA and others as mitigating climate change impacts on species, imperils the Florida manatee, a species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

To grasp the CPP threat to manatees, one does not need complex computer models or a Ph.D. in climate science. Cold stress is a leading killer of manatees. Coal power plants discharge heated water that keeps marine environments comfortably warm where thousands of manatees live (or rather, thousands congregate where power stations warm the surrounding waters). The CPP is a strategy to put the kibosh on coal generation. QED.

Manatees Florida Power and Light

Photo: Manatee refuge courtesy of Florida Light and Power

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) spell out the CPP threat to manatees in a letter sent yesterday to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. Because EPA failed to consult with the Fish & Wildlife Service about potential impacts of the CPP on manatees, the lawmakers conclude that the CPP flouts EPA’s obligations under section 7 of the ESA.

Despite their immense weight, manatees have little body fat and prolonged exposure to water temperatures colder than 68ºF can literally be lethal to these gentle giants. For example, in early March 2010, Save the Manatee Club reported that:

From January 1st through March 5th, at least 193 manatees have died from cold stress.  Another 151 deaths have been classified as undetermined or unrecovered, but the majority of these were likely also caused by cold stress. In total, 368 manatees have already died in Florida waters this year. . . .this unprecedented number of deaths is just 61 deaths shy of the total number of manatees who died in all of 2009 (429), which itself was a record.

Coal power plants literally save the lives of thousands of manatees. By discharging heated water, coal plants maintain warm and healthful environments for sea cows when the ocean would otherwise be too cold.

In their letter to EPA administrator McCarthy, Bishop and Inhofe note that two Florida power plants, Big Bend Power Plant and Crystal River Power Station, are likely to retire at least some of their coal generating units due to EPA’s rule. From the letter (footnotes omitted):

One power plant that is likely to retire at least some part of its coal-powered generating units due to EPA’s rule is Big Bend Power Station near Tampa, Florida. Big Bend has been designated as a primary warm-water manatee refuge, is surrounded by a manatee sanctuary, and has a manatee protection plan appended to its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit. Generation at the Crystal River Plant, another coal-fired power plant in Florida that has been designated as a manatee refuge and has a manatee protection plan appended to its NPDES permit, may also be disrupted by the rule.

Clearly, power plants like Big Bend and Crystal River are critical to the survival of the manatee. The FWS’s own Manatee Recovery Plan repeatedly stresses the importance of warm-water refuges created by the plants. In fact, one of the primary objectives of the Service’s Manatee Recovery Plan is to “protect . . . manatee habitats,” including “industrial warm-water refuges.” FWS also estimates that almost two-thirds of manatees rely on power plants when the water temperature plunges. Without a warm-water refuge, manatees that are subjected to cold experience “skin lesions, fat depletion, internal abscesses, gastrointestinal disorders, constipation and secondary infections” and death.

A regulation that causes designated manatee refuges like Big Bend and Crystal River to shut down or alter their operations would significantly and adversely affect the endangered manatee.

Under section 7 of the ESA, each federal agency “shall, in consultation with” the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), “insure [sic] that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by such agency . . . is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat of such species.” Yet EPA has not initiated a consultation with the FWS to assess CPP impacts on ESA-listed species, including the endangered manatee.

EPA concluded that section 7 consultation was unnecessary because the CPP’s “positive” impacts on species in general would be “very small” and “remote” due to rule’s small (computer-modeled) impacts on global climate change. That ignores the rule’s “real-world impacts” — the “Disruption and early retirement of operational power plants,” which could literally doom large numbers of endangered manatees.




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