Letter surfaces about plant’s impact on cranes

Jul 15, 2011 | Rockport Pilot | Related Press

In the proceedings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) on Exelon’s Early Site Permit (ESP) application for a proposed nuclear power plant, Exelon recently disclosed a 2.5-year-old letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service. That 10-page letter, which Exelon claimed it had “inadvertently omitted,” was in response to Exelon’s request for information about the environmental impact of their proposed nuclear power plant in Victoria.

The letter documents the federally listed species in the area and expresses concerns about potential impacts – critical issues which Texans for a Sound Energy Policy (TSEP) had specifically raised in its contentions before the ASLB. The letter was dated Oct. 3, 2008, and Exelon released it on June 2, 2011.

The letter discusses the federally endangered whooping crane and the potential impact of a nuclear power plant in Victoria County on the last remaining wild flock in the world, which winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Department of the Interior letter to Exelon states, “Depletion of water to the downstream bays and estuaries may also impact whooping crane food resources. This will need to be analyzed and considered.” This input from the federal agency that oversees the protection of the whooping crane was missing from the environmental report of Exelon’s application for an ESP.

TSEP’s attorney, Jim Blackburn, said, “It’s amazing that we spent so many hours discussing these contentions at the hearing, and this letter from the federal agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act never came up.” He continued, “Exelon’s motivation for not opposing these contentions and their unprecedented level of cooperation appears clearer.”

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Exelon received the letter from the Department of Interior at the beginning of what would be a devastating season for the whooping cranes when 16 juvenile Cranes and 18 adults – 8.5 percent of the flock- died while at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge due to a prolonged drought. That year, 2008-2009, was the worst winter season for the crane flock in recorded history. San Antonio Bay and the other bays and marshes in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge became hypersaline as river flows dropped, which affected available drinking water and food for the whooping cranes.

Last week the ASLB granted full party status to, and declared TSEP has met, the threshold for the formal admissibility of eight of their safety and environment contentions regarding Exelon’s ESP application. Of the two that relate to the whooping cranes TSEP contends the proposed site’s water use will have a significant impact on whooping cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge because water withdrawals from the Guadalupe River required for a water-intensive nuclear power plant will significantly reduce fresh water flowing into San Antonio Bay. This will in turn significantly increase the salinity of the water in the Bay, which will impact sources of drinking water and food sources for whooping cranes, which could be likely to replicate the devastation that occurred during the winter of 2008-2009.

Blackburn said, “These issues will be critical because the NRC is prohibited by Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act from issuing a license to Exelon if it would jeopardize the whooping cranes, or if it would alter their critical habitat. Section 7 will trump this license.”

Blackburn said, “The whooping crane is the icon of the Endangered Species Act, and there has never been a nuclear power plant sited in a location where the Department of the Interior and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have so much at stake. This is a serious Section 7 issue that has the attention of two federal regulatory agencies.”

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