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EPA Issues Final Permit to Reduce Environmental Damage to Mount Hope Bay From Brayton Point Power Plant

Release Date: 10/06/2003
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008 Edmund Coletta, MA DEP (617-292-5737)

BOSTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) today issued a new water discharge permit for the Brayton Point Station power plant that will require substantial reductions in the Somerset, MA facility's environmental impacts on Mount Hope Bay.

The jointly issued permit will substantially limit the power plant's water withdrawals from the bay and heated discharges back into the bay. The fossil-fuel burning power plant, owned by US Gen New England, a subsidiary of the PG&E National Energy Group, currently withdraws up to one billion gallons of water a day from Mount Hope Bay and discharges it back into the bay at temperatures up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. Withdrawals and discharges such as these require a permit under the federal Clean Water Act, which was enacted in 1972 to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of U.S. waters.

The new permit specifically requires that the power plant:

    • Reduce its annual heat discharge to the estuary by 96 percent from 42 trillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) per year to 1.7 trillion BTUs per year.
    • Reduce its water withdrawal from the bay by 94 percent, from an average flow of nearly one billion gallons per day to 56 million gallons per day.
Issuance of the final permit comes after careful consideration of more than 150 public comments submitted in response to the draft discharge permit that was issued in July 2002. Comments were received from numerous elected officials, local, state and federal government agencies, private organizations and individual citizens, as well as from the owner of the Brayton Point Station.

"We appreciate the time and expertise that went into the many comments submitted from all points of view to help improve the final permit," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. "After 12 months of careful evaluation of these comments, we continue to believe that there is strong scientific evidence showing that Brayton Point's cooling system has done substantial harm to the Mount Hope Bay ecosystem and that stronger controls are needed to reduce those impacts. We look forward to working with PG&E to implement this new permit so that the fishery and ecosystem of Mount Hope Bay can be protected as quickly as possible."

"This permit will ensure that the Mount Hope Bay fishery is provided greater protection," said DEP Commissioner Robert W. Golledge Jr. "It shows that cost-effective, environmentally beneficial outcomes can be achieved without compromising energy reliability."

"I commend the EPA and the Massachusetts DEP for their hard work and determination, which has led to a tough new discharge permit for the Brayton Point power plant," said RI Department of Environmental Management Director Jan Reitsma. "We are confident the new permit will reduce impacts to Mount Hope Bay so that this important ecosystem, and the shared Rhode Island fishery that it supports, can begin to recover from the ill effects it has been experiencing over the past several decades. This is a fair and balanced permit that addresses important environmental concerns, recognizes the energy needs of southern New England and supports PG&E's ability to continue operating its plant in a cost-effective manner."

Mount Hope Bay, which is bordered by Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is an important part of the Narragansett Bay estuary, a designated estuary of national environmental significance. At one time, Mount Hope Bay was a productive fish nursery area and an excellent habitat for fish, including popular commercial and recreational fish such as winter flounder and tautog.

The Brayton Point power plant, by far the largest industrial source affecting Mount Hope Bay, currently relies on a "once-through" cooling system in which bay water is circulated through the plant's cooling system, heated to high temperatures, and discharged back into the bay at temperatures up to 30 degrees warmer. These discharges drastically alter the thermal profile of the water body, making the bay at times inhospitable to native fish species and interfering with normal fish migration. In addition, the power plant uses bay water for cooling which contains billions of fish eggs, larvae and juveniles, most or all of which are destroyed when they are pulled into the facility and subjected to severe physical and chemical impacts as well as extreme water temperatures.

Monitoring data collected by the company has shown that fish populations in Mount Hope Bay have collapsed. Populations of numerous species have declined to drastically low levels, including economically significant species such as winter flounder and tautog, as well as other species such as hogchoker and windowpane. Strict fishing restrictions on recreational and commercial fishing in Mount Hope Bay have been in place for many years, but the fishery has not recovered.

EPA scientists believe that the fishery decline began by the early 1970s, but accelerated dramatically after 1984. Brayton Point began operations in the 1960s with three open-cycle, or "once-through," cooling units. In July 1984, it converted a previously closed-cycle unit to open-cycle, increasing the plant's withdrawal of cooling water from the bay and discharge of heated water to the bay by about 45 percent. After that conversion, the already deteriorating fishery collapsed precipitously.

The permit is the result of six years of extensive study by EPA, DEP and DEM and other parties, including review of dozens of scientific reports about Mount Hope Bay and extensive analysis of technological alternatives for the power plant. EPA also evaluated the feasibility and expense of the technological improvements that will likely be needed to meet the permit conditions and the significance of the environmental improvements that would be provided.

After careful consideration of the extensive public comments and additional information submitted to the agencies, EPA and DEP concluded that the new permit's stringent limits are both necessary and sufficient to satisfy federal and state Clean Water Act laws requiring that:

    • discharges of heat to the water be controlled adequately to assure the protection and propagation of a balanced, indigenous population of fish, shellfish and wildlife in Mount Hope Bay;
    • withdrawals of water for cooling be restricted in a manner that reflects, in the words of the Clean Water Act, the "Best Technology Available" for minimizing adverse environmental impacts; and
    • discharges of metals, such as copper, and chemicals, such as chlorine, satisfy applicable water quality or treatment technology standards.
EPA and DEP also concluded that the technologies are affordable and that the environmental improvements justify the cost.

"Our studies found that the facility can comply with the new permit using well-established technology without significant adverse impacts on the local community, the region's energy supply or consumer electric rates," Varney said. "The cost of making these improvements should add no more than 6 to 18 cents a month to the average household electric bill. That's a worthwhile expense considering the importance of this threatened estuary."

Varney said the agencies considered the alternative permit limits suggested by the power plant, but concluded these limits would not adequately protect the public resources in question. The agencies also evaluated more stringent limits suggested by other commenters, but concluded they were not necessary to meet Clean Water Act standards.

The final permit includes some minor changes from the draft permit, most of them clarifications and modifications to procedures and requirements for monitoring and reporting. The changes were made in response to public comments.

The final permit and other key documents, including EPA's response to comments in which the agency summarizes and responds to all significant comments on the draft permit, will be available for review at the agency's web site at, as well as the following locations:

EPA Office of Ecosystem Protection
1 Congress St.
Boston MA

Somerset Public Library
1464 County St.
Somerset MA

Rogers Free Library
525 Hope St.
Bristol RI