Water Treatment

How to Make the Most of the Section 316(b) Ruling Delay

Issue 11 and Volume 116.

Many large-scale power plants have already adjusted their cooling water intake processes to comply with the section 316(b) rule.
Many large-scale power plants have already adjusted their cooling water intake processes to comply with the section 316(b) rule. The most recent changes affect more than 1,200 smaller-scale facilities. Photo courtesy of Stantec.

By Nathan Henderson and Bill Mcelroy

This summer the US Environmental Protection Agency delayed finalizing the proposed standards for cooling water intake as described under section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act by another year, extending the deadline to June 27, 2013. Since the changes will affect an estimated 1,260 facilities, the delay comes as a welcome relief to many power and manufacturing plant owners looking for any reason to avoid implementing possible retrofits that may be needed to comply with the new rule.

Most large power companies have already been through the section 316(b) process in its previous rounds and are well entrenched in understanding and managing the issues. But for those smaller public power and rural cooperative facilities now within the proposed rule’s parameters, these proposed changes are still new and, most likely, overwhelming.

Although the delay may result in some minor adjustments to the rule, the majority of its proposed changes are indeed on the horizon. This extra year provides owners with an opportunity to begin some preparations now, whether that means setting funds aside in the budget or reassessing cooling water intake structures (CWIS) to improve efficiencies.

Why the Delay?

The most recent delay in finalizing the 316(b) ruling comes in response to the many comments EPA received about the inflexibility of the rule’s impingement requirements. Representatives from the power industry, in particular, advocated for more flexible, technology-based standards, so the EPA proposed delaying the final rule for another year to continue assessing that feedback. The chief plaintiff in the challenges to the rule—Riverkeeper, a New York-based water protection organization—agreed to the delay.

Such deliberation is nothing new—the regulations of this section of the Clean Water Act of 1972 have been modified and argued over since their inception in 1976. The original regulations presented at that time were remanded in 1977, withdrawn by EPA in 1979, and resurrected as a first phase to implementing cooling water intake structure standards for new facilities in 2001. By 2004, the standards were expanded to large existing power plants (phase two) and were moving forward while a third phase intended for smaller plants was introduced. In 2007, however, Riverkeeper challenged the rule, proposing closed-cycle cooling be the mandate for all CWIS systems. Since then the rule has been suspended and reintroduced several times, leading to this most recent development.

Where to Start

Many owners are hesitant to invest too much time and money into preparing for the new 316(b) rule knowing that it may continue to be in flux. However, the assumption is that EPA won’t change the draft rule substantially, so what we see now will likely be very close to what we get. So, with this extra year to plan, there are some low-risk actions owners can take to better position their plants for the new requirements once the rule is finalized.

1. Get informed. There’s virtually no risk in making sure that both the plant’s ownership and operators fully understand the state of planning at their facilities and how that subjects them to the fundamental changes that loom. Where are the facilities located? What types of facilities are they? What kind of cooling water intake systems currently operate at these plants? Researching the existing technologies for cooling water intakes and how those may function given the circumstances of a plant will better prepare the owners for the options they have when the time comes. Some technologies may be entirely unsuitable, or a combination of systems may help that plant meet the requirements most effectively.

Reviewing a plant's entire cooling water intake system, from the piping systems to water screens like these, may pinpoint system improvements and efficiencies that will help with compliance. Photo courtesy of Stantec.
Reviewing a plant’s entire cooling water intake system, from the piping systems to water screens like these, may pinpoint system improvements and efficiencies that will help with compliance. Photo courtesy of Stantec.

2. Bring in O&M. Operations and maintenance staff should be involved in these discussions and planning early on. Owners tend to begin talks about compliance and system changes with regulators and environmental professionals without consulting the O&M staff, who are typically the most informed about the plant’s peak times, outages, and needed upgrades. As the team develops a strategy for compliance, the continued operation and maintenance of the plant must be accounted for given their implications on the budget and energy use year after year.

3. Look for efficiencies. If a plant is scheduled for system upgrades or changes in the coming year or two, those plans should be shelved for now. Making those changes along with those required by section 316(b) may make more sense—both in functionality and costs. Similarly, there may be an opportunity to improve equipment or systems that weren’t necessarily slated for immediate upgrades in the process of making the section 316(b) changes. 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. In the course of assessing the environmental impacts of a plant’s cooling water intake structures, the need for these improvements and a plan for rolling them into a compliance strategy may begin to emerge.

4. Budget accordingly. Armed with all of this information, owners can begin to plan their upcoming budgets and set aside any potential upgrades and expenses related to compliance. Being realistic about the costs of compliance now will help soften the blow of the costs that may be incurred down the road.

5. Consider the help of a specialist. All of the planning, analysis, budgeting, and decision-making related to the cooling water intake rule can be overwhelming. Plant owners may want to consider hiring an engineering or environmental consultant to help determine both what steps may be needed for a given plant’s compliance as well as the associated costs. Again, using this extra year to engage a 316(b) specialist may result in a more reliable assessment and development of a compliance strategy and its budget. The most helpful consultant is one who has worked on a variety of different types of facilities and has thus developed a broad base of experience and creative thinking for compliance approaches.

This kind of specialist can assess a facility and immediately help answer such questions as what is the flow rate? What is the approach velocity? What is the current technology at the CWIS? Are there fish return systems? With those answers, the steps for complying with mortality standards can be determined. An experienced specialist can also quickly gauge the magnitude of costs for making those changes or help determine if the technologies currently employed are similar enough to those suggested in the 316(b) guidance to pass muster. While this kind of professional guidance does cost money, the small investment it means for the short term may save much more in the long term, either by avoiding spending money on unnecessary alterations or by avoiding the fines that could come from noncompliance.

One of the most important responsibilities for plant owners and operators, however, is to voice their concerns or opinions on the rule. Take the opportunity to comment on the rule, either as an individual owner or on behalf of an association or the industry. Follow the development of the rule as the June 2013 deadline approaches. Staying informed about the rule and its implications and requirements will only leave owners better prepared to adjust their budgets and improvement plans accordingly as the rule’s implementation progresses.


Nathan Henderson is a supervising project manager and 316(b) practice lead for Stantec, based in Scarborough, Maine.

Bill Mcelroy is a senior engineer based in Stantec’s Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, office.