19 January 2011

Barnegat Bay Restoration Plan Addresses Nuke Cooling System and Soil Compaction

Posted by John Freeland

2009 07 03 - 7046 - Barnegat Light - Barnegat Inlet

Barnegat Bay and Oyster Creek Generating Station. Photo by Andrew Bossi CC.

Last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie unveiled a plan to improve the ecologic health of Barnegat Bay, which includes coastal areas of Orange County.

According to thegovmonitor.com

“The goal is to restore, protect and enhance Barnegat Bay, which has been suffering,” said (Department of Environmental Protection) Commissioner Martin. “We are dealing with problems that have been long in the making, so we have sought solid, long-term solutions that will restore the environmental health of this tremendous resource.”

One aspect of the restoration plan caught headlines: the early shutdown of Exelon’s Oyster Creek nuclear power plant. The nuke plant currently uses Barnegat Bay to dissipate waste heat in a once-through cooling system (1, 2, 3). Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act “requires that the location, design, construction and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact.”

After seafood harvesters and others brought pressure, Exelon was required to build a cooling tower as a condition of issuance of a new discharge permit. Rather than spend $800 million on a cooling tower, Exelon agreed to close the plant ten years early. Exelon will continue business as usual at Oyster Creek until 2019, not 2029. That’s the plan.

The restoration plan has these important additional elements:

  1. Stricter fertilizer management
  2. Post-construction soil decompaction
  3. Purchase sensitive lands in the Barnegat Bay watershed
  4. Multiple-jurisdiction Special Area Management Plan
  5. More rigorous water quality standards
  6. Public education regarding non-point source pollution prevention
  7. More comprehensive research, including wastewater improvement strategies and a hydrologic model for the Bay
  8. Reduce water craft impacts by restricting certain kinds of boat traffic.

I was glad to see soil restoration in the mix. When a developer goes into a site, they generally mass-grade the soil with heavy equipment. Often times, the topsoil is stripped off and either stored for later use on the site or sold to an off-site user. Repeated passages over the ground surface with bulldozers and the like compacts the soil, rendering it less permeable.

The result post-construction, even after the sod and the landscape trees and bushes are planted, is a soil that stores less water, contains less air, has higher bulk density, supports less life, has less root penetration and development, and cycles fewer nutrients.

The end result is a soil that generates more runoff - usually laden with sediment, fertilizers, and herbicides. That runoff ends up in the bay. As illustrated in the figure below, unmanaged construction sites are major sources of erosion and sedimentation.

To adequately address compaction, the developer needs to deep-till or disk the soil to increase its porosity. A better approach is to rethink construction methods and implement better practices with the goal of minimizing disturbance of the existing soil. Some builders specialize in placing buildings into sites with minimal impacts and “green infrastructure” to maintain the pre-existing hydrologic conditions – a technique known as Low Impact Development.

There’s an old saying: “everything ends up in the ocean.” In a coastal region like Ocean County, New Jersey, the waste heat and residue of modern life washes into the bay that’s treasured for its seafood, fishing, recreation, and aesthetic qualities.

There’s a tension between our need for the sea that sustains us: the food, the blue sparkling water, the fresh breeze, the soul-lifting space, and faraway horizon we find at the shore – and the fear of the high cost of changing our ways. There’s far more fear than cost.

As new rules and technologies are proposed we hear a steady chant from the nervous vested interests: “job-killer, job-killer, job-killer…” To calm those nerves, the State of New Jersey has given them time. The Barnegat Bay restoration plan is just that: a plan, and it won’t do much right away. But, the plan has identified some key problems and set a framework for correcting them. Citizens will watch and wait for the follow-through.

Whatever eventually happens, the words of Luna Leopold will ring true: “The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.”