[env-trinity] Power Plants and Delta Crash Contra Costa Times March
bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Mar 15 13:37:39 PST 2006
Mirant plants attract attention in Delta crisis
Contra Costa Times - 3/15/06
By Mike Taugher
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
A pair of Contra Costa County power plants that at one time killed tens of
millions of fish a year are being scrutinized by researchers investigating
potential causes of the ecological crash in the Delta.
The plants in Antioch and Pittsburg are cooled with water from Suisun Bay,
which is an important habitat for rearing fish and the place where
scientists think some of the main problems leading to the crisis might be
Although a consultant reported in 1979 that as many as 86 million smelt and
smelt larvae were sucked into the two power plants each year, that was at a
time when the now-aged plants were run much harder and there were more fish
in the water. Those numbers included both Delta smelt, which are protected
under the Endangered Species Act, and longfin smelt.
But what has happened since then is unknown because the plants' owner,
Mirant Corp., has not provided information about the effects of the plants'
operations. Scientists want to know how much water is drawn into the cooling
systems, how many fish are in that water and how much the discharges are
warming the bay's water.
"I want to get some data to really give me a sense of what's going on out
there," said Chuck Armor, operations manager of the state Department of Fish
and Game's Central Valley/Bay-Delta branch.
Despite delays in providing information, the company is now cooperating more
with regulators as its Endangered Species Act permits expire, according to
Officials say the company did not meet the conditions of the permits issued
in 2002. Those conditions included a requirement for Mirant to install a
screen to keep fish out of one of the power plants. If the screen worked,
Mirant was expected to do the same at the other plant.
The conditions also required Mirant to monitor the number of fish being
killed at the plants.
But Mirant never installed a screen and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
says that it appears the company never monitored fish killed at the intake
"As far as we know, that hasn't been done," said Fish and Wildlife Service
spokesman Jim Nickles. "There is nothing happening that will reduce the
impacts. We're definitely concerned about that."
Nickles said his agency is working with Mirant to draft another permit, but
he could not comment on any possible enforcement actions in connection with
the company's failure to meet the permit conditions.
In response to a series of specific questions asked by the Times, including
queries about the lack of a fish screen and monitoring data about the number
of fish killed at the plants, the company e-mailed a two-sentence response.
"Mirant Delta is committed to doing its part to protect the environment,
while maintaining power system reliability for residents of the San
Francisco Bay area. Mirant Delta is also working directly with all
associated agencies to ensure the safety of wildlife habitats in the Bay,"
the company said.
The recent decline in populations of open-water Delta fish began in about
2001 or 2002 and represents a steep drop in what was already a decades-long
general decline among Delta fish populations. Delta smelt, longfin smelt,
threadfin shad and young-of-year striped bass all are at or near record
Scientists say the cause of the problem is likely a combination of toxic
pollution, invasive species that are competing for resources with native
fish, and water pumping operations. One leading theory holds that invasive
clams now carpeting the bottom of Suisun Bay are consuming the food needed
by young fish. The clams, which arrived about 20 years ago in ship ballast
from Asia, might be taking advantage of increased salinity in the fall when
less water flows into the Delta.
Scientists say it is possible that, if the root of the problem is in Suisun
Bay, the power plants could be adding to the problem.
Environmentalists and anglers, meanwhile, are especially focused on the
massive pumping stations at Byron and Tracy that deliver water to the San
Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Jerry Johns, deputy director for the state Department of Water Resources,
which operates the pumps at Byron, said the state and federal pumps are
heavily scrutinized. But he notes that the Mirant pumps are almost
completely ignored, even though the power plants take water out of more
"It seems that we have fish counts four times a day (at the state pumps),
but we have zero information about how many fish are being entrained (sucked
up) right in the heart of Delta smelt area," Johns said.
Combined, the two power plants' pumps can draw 3,240 cubic feet per second,
or about 75 percent as much as federal pumps in Tracy that irrigate the San
Joaquin Valley. It is unknown how much power those plants are generating and
how much water they are using to cool them.
Mirant, based in Atlanta, bought the power plants from Pacific Gas and
Electric in 1999. It reaped a windfall during California's deregulation
experiment, but is now in bankruptcy.#
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
Advisor, California Trout, Inc
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 ph
415 383 9562 fx
bwl3 at comcast.net
bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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