How the EPA’s clean water regulations will impact manufacturers

For more than 10 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to update the regulations for water intake at industrial and power facilities, including manufacturing plants, as part of the Clean Water Act. Manufacturers are now gearing up to comply with the new terms.

By Nathan Henderson and Bill Mcelroy May 20, 2014
Known as Section 316(b) of the act, the water intake rule regulates the water a plant pulls in for cooling purposes. The rule has been revised and delayed several times in the last few years, and it was finally signed May 19, 2014. Although it’s now in the required 60-day comment period, the majority of the proposed changes are expected to move forward, meaning that manufacturers should be preparing themselves now on how to comply with the new terms.

What exactly is 316(b)?

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act requires facilities that use more than 2 million gallons of water a day from sources such as lakes and rivers for cooling processes to ensure that their system minimizes its impact on the environment.

For example, the regulations address trapping fish and other aquatic wildlife against the intake screens or drawing them into the facility, referred to as “impingement” and “entrainment” in the rule. The rule was expected to be implemented in three phases: New facilities starting in 2001, existing large electric-generating facilities in 2004, and existing small electric and manufacturing facilities in 2006.

However, in 2007, Riverkeeper, a New York-based water protection organization, challenged the rule, proposing closed-cycle cooling be the mandate for all cooling water intake systems. Since then the rule has been suspended and reintroduced several times, leading to this spring’s final review and ultimate passing in May.

How has the rule impacted the manufacturing industry?

Since the 316(b) cooling water intake rule was first introduced, manufacturing plants have largely been exempt. The rule was primarily targeted at large power plants that take in millions of gallons of water a day, and even then, only plants using 25% or more of their water intake for cooling purposes had to comply.

As such, many manufacturing plants either didn’t intake the quantities in question or could calculate detailed water budgets that proved only a small percentage of their water was actually used for cooling (the rest going toward the manufacturing process). But with the increased scrutiny of the rule, the EPA has identified more than 500 manufacturing plants that must meet the new requirements of the rule.

With the rule’s recent review through the lens of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the number of power and manufacturing plants subject to its requirements is expected to grow. The ESA review was intended to determine whether the rule provides adequate protection of endangered fish and other species that are impinged or entrained by a plant’s water intake structures. So now, if a plant’s water intake source is found to host endangered fish and other species, it’s likely EPA will enforce 316(b) compliance, no matter what percentage or volume of the intake is used for cooling.

What Now?

So what does this mean for the manufacturing industry? Because any plant that takes in the identified levels of cooling water – or impacts endangered species – will likely need to comply with the rule within the next eight years, planning should begin now to assess what upgrades or additions to the intake structures or cooling towers a plant may require. 

1. Learn about the rule: Make sure that both a plant’s ownership and operators fully understand the state of planning at their facilities and how that subjects them to the fundamental changes the 316(b) rule may impose. Researching the existing technologies for cooling water intake and how those may function at the plant will help owners plan for what they need to do. The history and terms of the rule are on the EPA’s website:

2. Bring in O&M:
Operations and maintenance staff should be involved in this planning early on. They tend to be the most informed about a facility’s peak times, operational issues, 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. Assess upcoming improvement plans: If your facility has some maintenance or improvements scheduled for the next few years, take a look at if or how any 316(b) improvements may impact them. For example, if it is expected that a facility needs new or upgraded intake screens, or pumps, or motors, review whether or not these plans should be deferred or included as part of any equipment alternations resulting from the 316(b) regulations. 

4. 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 them understand what exactly this rule means and how it impacts them. 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.

Specialists know the right questions to ask about the water intake system – What is the flow rate? What is the approach velocity? What is the current cooling water intake technology? Are there fish return systems? – and can use those answers to help determine compliance options and the potential costs. This kind of impartial, professional guidance does cost money, but the small investment it means for the short term may save much more in the long term, by avoiding unnecessary alterations or the fines that could come from noncompliance.

Nathan Henderson is a principal and 316(b) practice lead for Stantec. Bill Mcelroy is a senior engineer who has over 30 years of experience working in the power industry on issues pertaining to Section 316(b). Edited by Jessica DuBois-Maahs, associate content manager, CFE Media,