10/1/10

The region's largest power plant on Humboldt Bay for 52 years was shut down and replaced by a modern facility meant to produce next-generation electricity.

The switch was thrown on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s new King Salmon power plant, which began generating power as its two aged fossil-fuel units went offline Wednesday and Thursday.

”We're powering the county,” said PG&E Plant Manager Paul Roller. “This is the first day they've actually done that.”

Eight of 10 Wartsila natural gas engines that are the guts of the plant roared inside insulated walls. When all the engines are running, the plant can produce up to 163 megawatts of electricity. It's also flexible enough to ramp up or down depending on demand and how much renewable energy like wind or solar is being pumped into the electrical grid.

PG&E officially broke ground on the project in December 2008, and gathered a work force that at its peak was about 280 workers. While operational, crews are still putting the finishing touches on the facility.

Sid Berg, chairman of the Humboldt-Del Norte Building and Construction Trades Council, said the project brought in some especially skilled tradesmen, including top welders who were able to train apprentices.

”Everybody worked together,” Berg said. “It was a good example of how business and labor can work together.”

The original plant was built in the 1950s, consisting of a nuclear facility  and two fossil-fuel turbines. The nuclear element was last operated in 1976, and was not restarted after concerns about seismic issues were raised. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania occurred three years later, and in 1984, PG&E decided to cap the King Salmon nuclear unit in 1984.

Now, PG&E is dismantling the nuclear unit and the two conventional elements. It has moved the 390 rods of spent nuclear fuel from a holding pool in the plant into specially built casks, which are now stored in an underground bunker on the site that is designed to withstand a 9.3-magnitude earthquake and a terrorist attack.

But there is substantially more work to be done. The radioactive reactor and nuclear infrastructure must be removed under strict protocols and trucked out of state to a certified facility. The 300-ton reactor vessel is in a hole 66 feet below sea level, and must be removed with a massive crane. Other parts of the facility must be cut down and removed in steel drums.

PG&E's Dave Pierce is responsible for the job, and the utility is determined to set a standard for other nuclear decommissioning efforts in the country.

”It's something we've never done before,” Pierce said, “so it's something new.”

Because the property is a nuclear site, parts of the two old conventional generators will have to be removed and tested before being shipped out. To handle that task, PG&E built a $2 million lab to check for potential radioactivity in components and soil.

Dozens of PG&E workers and contractors are busy moving onto the next phases of the effort, a complex and intertwined process that will take several more years to complete. The fossil-fuel units are expected to be removed by early 2012, with the complete decommissioning of the nuclear facility anticipated to be done in 2015.

 

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10/2/10

Divers scoured holes on the lower Eel River on Friday looking to get an estimate of how many salmon and steelhead have moved in from the ocean so far.

Fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins, joined by divers with the Wiyot Tribe, the Bear River Rancheria and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, briefed the group on how to go about counting fish in different types of holes, letting them know that poor visibility from algae growth would make the task difficult.

”This is a challenging exercise,” Higgins said on the banks of the Eel River at Fernbridge.

Higgins has been contracted by Friends of the Eel River to get an idea about how the first salmon and steelhead in the river are affected by the diversion to the Russian River. Currently, some 130 cubic feet per second of water is being sent through the diversion tunnel to Potter Valley into Lake Mendocino. Only 28 cfs is being released into the Eel.

At the same time, Lake Mendocino is substantially more full than is allowable in the winter, when space is needed for floodwaters.

Dressed in wetsuits and donning snorkels, the team worked through pools from below Fernbridge up to the Van Duzen River confluence. Higgins said he saw hundreds of chinook salmon and steelhead two weeks ago when he dove, and was hoping to see several hundred more Friday. If the team can get a good count, he said, the California Department of Fish and Game may follow the dive with weekly surveys.

These salmon are not migrating upstream due to the low flows in the river, and could be vulnerable in dry years if a heat wave sparked an algae bloom that stripped oxygen from the water, Higgins said.

Wiyot Tribe Councilman Alan Miller said that the tribe wants to get the river back to health, to where tribal members can harvest salmon and lamprey sustainably. With the river so shallow and so choked with algae -- in parts of the watershed harmful to contact or drink -- there's clearly a long way to go, Miller said. 

 

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9/29/10

The world's rivers, the single largest renewable water resource for humans and a crucible of aquatic biodiversity, are in a crisis of ominous proportions, according to a new global analysis.

The report, published today in the journal Nature, is the first to simultaneously account for the effects of such things as pollution, dam building, agricultural runoff, the conversion of wetlands and the introduction of exotic species on the health of the world's rivers.

The resulting portrait of the global riverine environment, according to the scientists who conducted the analysis, is grim. It reveals that nearly 80 percent of the world's human population lives in areas where river waters are highly threatened posing a major threat to human water security and resulting in aquatic environments where thousands of species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

"Rivers around the world really are in a crisis state," says Peter B. McIntyre, a senior author of the new study and a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Limnology.

The Nature report was authored by an international team co-led by Charles J. Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, an expert on global water resources, and McIntyre, an expert on freshwater biodiversity.

Examining the influence of numerous types of threats to water quality and aquatic life across all of the world's river systems, the study is the first to explicitly assess both human water security and biodiversity in parallel. Fresh water is widely regarded as the world's most essential natural resource, underpinning human life and economic development as well as the existence of countless organisms ranging from microscopic life to fish, amphibians, birds and terrestrial animals of all kinds.

What jumps out, say McIntyre and Vörösmarty, is that rivers in different parts of the world are subject to similar types of stresses, such things as agricultural intensification, industrial development, river habitat modification and other factors. Compounding the problem is that some of the negative influences on rivers arrive in indirect ways. Mercury pollution, for example, is a byproduct of electricity generation at coal-fired power plants and pollutes surface water via the atmosphere.

"We find a real stew of chemicals flowing through our waterways," explains Vörösmarty, noting that the study represents a state-of-the-art summary, yet was unable to account for such things as threats from mining, the growing number of pharmaceuticals found in surface water and the synergistic effects of all the stresses affecting rivers.

"And what we're doing is treating the symptoms of a larger problem," Vörösmarty explains. "We know it is far more cost effective to protect these water systems in the first place. So the current emphasis on treating the symptoms rather than the underlying causes makes little sense from a water security standpoint or a biodiversity standpoint, or for that matter an economic standpoint."

Among the startling conclusions of the study is that rivers in the developed world, including much of the United States and Western Europe, are under severe threat despite decades of attention to pollution control and investments in environmental protection. Huge investments in water technology and treatment reduce threats to humans, but mainly in developed nations, and leave biodiversity in both developed and developing countries under high levels of threat, according to the new report.

"What made our jaws drop is that some of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe," says McIntyre, who began work on the project as a Smith Fellow at the University of Michigan. "Americans tend to think water pollution problems are pretty well under control, but we still face enormous challenges."

 

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See also Scientists Sound Alarm on State of the World’s Rivers

 

 

 

9/29/10

The owner of the Samoa pulp mill said it will shut down the plant for good after failing over the past year and a half to raise capital to restart it.

Freshwater Tissue Co. President Bob Simpson blamed federal regulations for making it impossible to secure loans, and expressed frustration at being unable to tap federal energy funds for an earlier-envisioned retrofit of the plant to a pulp and tissue producer.

”I am disappointed in our failure to restart the pulp mill,” Simpson said in a statement. “We exhausted all means of funding the project, with the intention of rehiring union workers.”

Members of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 49 who have not found other jobs since the mill stopped operating in October 2008 now face a daunting job market and the expiration of unemployment benefits. The workforce is particularly aged, with some workers having put in more than 40 years at the mill.

”We kept holding on to hope,” said Local 49 President Nathan Zink, “but I didn't think it was going to happen as of a year ago.” 

 

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9/20/10

Building good fences could make our water cleaner, and help us to meet European standards, according to researchers working on the UK research councils' Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (Relu).

Relu scientists have created a computer model to investigate the problem of fecal pollution in UK rivers. The organisms come mainly from farm animals' feces and untreated human sewage.

As sewage treatment has improved over recent years, human sewage is less problematic, except in times of heavy rainfall, when less efficient treatment works pose a threat. But livestock, and dairy cattle in particular, continue to be a major contributor of harmful organisms. The research shows that there is a high risk of fecal pollution entering watercourses within areas with high densities of dairy cattle.

The UK has to tackle this problem, not only because of the health risks for those such as canoeists and paddlers, especially children, who are directly exposed to pollution in rivers, but also because of European legislation. At the moment, many of our watercourses do not meet the requirements of the European Water Framework Directive.

One way of reducing the numbers of fecal organisms would be to have fewer farm animals grazing in vulnerable areas near rivers. But, for some dairy farmers, a reduction in stocking densities could have serious implications for their livelihoods and there could be economic consequences for wider rural communities.

So, drawing on work from several projects across the Relu research program, the team created a computer model to investigate different approaches to tackling the problem. These included government interventions that would directly restrict stocking levels and simpler, everyday solutions, such as erecting fences to prevent livestock depositing feces directly into watercourses.

They found that simple farm-scale solutions are likely to be most effective at reducing the numbers of potentially dangerous organisms entering watercourses -- and could work out cheaper both for farmers and consumers.

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