From November to April, hundreds of manatees huddle in the warm discharge canal of one of Florida’s biggest coal-fired plants, the Big Bend Power Station near Tampa, as camera-toting families point and laugh from a viewing deck at the gentle creatures lolling near the smokestacks.
Some two-thirds of Florida’s endangered manatees rely on discharge waters from power plants for winter warmth, according to federal biologists. It’s a fact that congressional Republicans are seizing on to challenge the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s agenda to fight climate change, a plan to slash carbon emissions that could force large-scale closures of coal plants.
The chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources confronted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe on the issue at a budget hearing Thursday. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to formally consult on any plan that could pose problems for an endangered species.
A consultation process on endangered species issues could take time, slowing down the rules aimed at lowering carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, the largest U.S. source of emissions that scientists have linked to warming of the planet. The Environmental Protection Agency last year proposed the most significant of the rules, setting federal standards for existing power plants, and it is getting ready to finalize it this summer.
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After Ashe acknowledged under questioning that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not consult with the EPA on the power plant rules, Bishop displayed in the committee room a photo of manatees in the Big Bend discharge canal, and he noted it is “considered a primary warm-water site for the manatees.”
“So if EPA regulations cause this primary warm-water site to close down or substantially alter its operations, then it would adversely affect the manatee,” Bishop said. “Would that be something about which you think you need to consult with the EPA?”
Ashe agreed there would need for consultation “because there is a very direct and obvious impact and relationship between that water discharge and those manatees.”
But he tried to add that “at the scale of carbon dioxide, though. . .” before Bishop cut him off .
Ashe had been trying to say there should be consultation on a power plant’s impact on manatees, but “not on the EPA’s overall carbon emissions rule,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire.
It’s not the first time Republican lawmakers have linked the power plant rule to endangered species. Three senators last year suggested the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to consult on what the plan would do to species such as the California condor, which could be killed by wind turbines if there is a shift from coal to wind power. The EPA rejected that suggestion.
Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the four units at the Big Bend Power Station, a major attraction for manatees and tourists, are currently expected to last from between 2035 and 2050.
But the proposed new carbon pollution rule could result in “one or more units” closed in 2025 instead, she said.
It’s a fact that manatees rely on the power plants, said Bob Bonde, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla., who has worked with manatees for 37 years.
“If we shut them off cold turkey and the manatees don’t have options or other responses, then we’re going to have a problem,” he said. “And those manatees aren’t going to be able to fend for themselves over the short term.”
But he said wildlife managers are working on ideas to wean manatees from depending on the plants.
Bonde said innovative thinkers are considering what can be done for the manatees before “power plants do decommission or shut down for appropriate reasons – that we are polluting the environment by putting that warm water out there in places where it wasn’t mean to be.”
If manatees come to a power plant and discover the heat is erratic, they can be conditioned to go to natural sources of warm water like artesian springs, he said. It’s important that such conditioning happens during the early winter, though, before it’s too cold for the manatees to survive, he said.
“I would think any kind of educated process in getting manatees to disassociate from any source of artificial warm water is probably a healthy thing to do for the long term,” Bonde said. “Let’s face it, we can’t produce warm water for manatees forever.”