Despite decades of efforts to restore and protect the Great Lakes, dozens of old power plants still are allowed to kill hundreds of millions of fish each year by sucking in massive amounts of water to cool their equipment.
Records obtained by the Chicago Tribune show that staggering numbers of fish die when pulled into the screens of water intake systems so powerful that most could fill an Olympic swimming pool in less than a minute. Billions more eggs, larvae and juvenile fish that are small enough to pass through the screens are cooked to death by intense heat and high pressure inside the coal, gas and nuclear plants.
Then the water is pumped back into Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes up to 30 degrees hotter, encouraging the growth of oxygen-depleting algae that kill fish and foul beaches.
Known as "once-through" cooling, the process is banned at new power plants. But for nearly four decades, federal and state environmental regulators largely have ignored the issue at old plants, even as fish populations decline sharply throughout the lakes and states spend millions of taxpayer dollars to stock the waters with game fish.
Cooling intakes kill fish prized by anglers and sold in supermarkets, along with many more smaller fish and other aquatic organisms that those species depend on for food. Critics compare the outdated technology to the Bass-o-Matic, the fish-pureeing prop from an old "Saturday Night Live"
"These plants are consistent killers, plain and simple," said Frank Reynolds, a commercial fisherman on Lake Erie who since the 1970s has been showing up at public meetings with a jar of walleye larvae to draw attention to the issue. "They're trying every way they can to avoid doing something to protect the fish."
The Tribune obtained thousands of pages of industry reports documenting power plant fish kills through Freedom of Information Act requests to the eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Among the findings:
The fish killed at the Point Beach nuclear plant north of Manitowoc, Wis., reduce the yield of Lake Michigan's fisheries by an estimated 10,625 pounds a year, or about 4.5% of the annual commercial fishing catch by weight.
The Cook nuclear plant near Benton Harbor, Mich., kills more than 1.3 million fish annually, most of which are yellow perch.
On Lake Erie, the Bay Shore
coal plant near Toledo, Ohio
, kills 46 million adult fish and more than 2.4 billion eggs, larvae and young fish each year in the region's most prolific spawning grounds.
Federal law requires new power plants to install less-destructive equipment such as cooling towers, which act like a car's radiator and draw water only to make up for what is lost through evaporation.
At the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant on Lake Ontario in New York, a reactor that has a once-through cooling system killed 154,541 fish in 2007, but a second reactor with a cooling tower killed just 34,128, documents show.
Industry lawsuits have delayed the phase-out of once-through cooling at older plants. Echoing their arguments about tougher air-pollution rules, power company lobbyists say the expense would force dozens of plants to close, costing jobs and making the nation's electrical grid less reliable.
Some plants have tried to reduce fish kills by building intakes offshore away from spots where fish congregate. Others have installed systems designed to deter fish with sound or air bubbles.
"It's not clear to me scientifically that there is a broad-based problem out there that needs to be fixed," said C. Richard Bozek, director of environmental policy for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for energy companies. "There are situations out there that need to be addressed, but those decisions should be made on a site-by-site basis."
When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, lawmakers included a provision intended to help restore the Great Lakes and other U.S. lakes and rivers by forcing polluters to significantly reduce their water withdrawals. Faced with a court order, the Obama administration in March proposed new nationwide rules that will require older power plants either to meet certain limits on fish kills or to reduce the velocity of their water intakes.
However, the EPA would leave enforcement to state officials who have allowed cooling intakes to be used with few if any limits. The proposed rules also exempt companies from installing cooling towers at older plants when they are modified.
Nearly 60% of facilities affected by the federal proposal probably won't be required to make any changes, according to EPA documents.