Closing Power Plants Could Kill Manatees

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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While environmentalists celebrate nuclear and coal power plant closings, Florida’s endangered manatees sure don’t.

As environmental pressure groups and federal regulations force power plants to close, manatees that have begun to rely on warm water discharges from these plants are being put in an existential bind.

Every year, swarms of manatees in Florida’s Crystal River Refuge head for warm waters provided by power plant discharge and other naturally warmer waters to ride out the winter. Those that don’t make it will likely die, as manatees can’t survive long in water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Three Sisters Springs is one spot where manatees ride out the cold waters. In February, some 300 manatees swarmed Three Sister’s 72-degree waters, forcing federal officials to close down the refuge to visitors. The horde of manatees was twice as big as other major hordes the refuge has seen in the past, and officials say the large numbers of manatees could be caused by the destruction of their usual wintering spots south of Crystal River.

But with nearby power plants slated to go offline soon, manatees could find themselves in dire straits. Duke Energy, Florida’s second-largest utility, is closing down its nuclear and coal generators near the Crystal River Refuge because of federal environmental rules. The discharge from these plants helped warm the water in havens like Three Sisters Springs to temperatures warm enough for manatees to thrive.

Environmental groups have been urging Duke to shutter its Crystal River coal units and replace them with a natural gas power plant. Duke said it would retire two coal generators and replace them with a natural gas one — a move that was cheered by Florida activists.

The Sierra Club and other environmentalists asked Duke and the Florida public utility officials to fast-track the two coal plants’ retirements to 2016. Duke said it would shutter its coal-fired generators by 2020, but that wasn’t fast enough for the green movement. Environmentalists argued that Duke was stalling and that the plants needed to be shuttered soon and replaced with green energy sources.

“As a responsibility to its customers, Duke Energy must make a major commitment to energy efficiency and solar electricity as the way to replace lost capacity when it retires the coal units at Crystal River,” said Frank Jackalone, director of Sierra Club’s Florida office.

Florida’s environmentalist community joined the Sierra Club last year in signing a petition urging Duke to shutter its Crystal River coal plants, asserting they were harming the region’s health and causing global warming.

“By shutting down the dirtiest power plants, like Crystal River, using energy more efficiently, and by generating more power from clean, renewable sources like the sun, we could be delivering a one-two punch in the fight against climate change, and ensuring the health and safety of our communities for years to come,” said Jennifer Rubiello, field associate with Environment Florida.

Ironically, environmentalist protest against Crystal River power plants are to the detriment of manatees — which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

A 2005 report by the Marine Mammal Commission found that “most Florida manatees survive cold winter periods by aggregating at warm-water discharges from power plants and natural springs in central and northern Florida.” The study added that “during the coldest periods, perhaps 60% of all manatees use 10 power plants” to keep warm.

As these power plants are closed in central and northern Florida, MMC warns that “southernmost Florida may not be able to sustain a large influx of displaced manatees in the absence of power plants.”

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