|Cleaner air is in, endangered mussels out at TVA’s Gallatin Steam Plant|
|Friday, December 14, 2012|
By ANNE PAINE and KEN BECK
For MainStreet Media
A successful nursery for endangered mussels and fish at TVA’s Gallatin Steam Plant on the Cumberland River is being forced to shut down to make way for a different kind of environmental project.
A $1 billion air pollution control addition at the 1950s-era, coal-fired plant must go on the land where the aquatic center lies, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA has told the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to vacate the site by March, leaving the future of the mussel-, lake sturgeon- and alligator gar-raising operation uncertain.
“We are in the process of moving all the animals from that facility and finding them new homes,” said David McKinney, TWRA environmental sciences chief.
Equipment from the Cumberland River Aquatic Center that can be salvaged will be moved to the agency’s Old Hickory Wildlife Management Area, he said. But there will be “serious restrictions” related to water and electricity availability, and any new start up center would be scaled back from the shoestring operation it already was.
Anda Ray, a TVA senior vice president, said the power producer has no obligation to the wildlife agency that six years ago took over and rehabbed an abandoned and dilapidated fish hatchery on the plant property.
A contract stipulated that the power producer could require the wildlife agency to leave at any time and would move at its own expense, she said, adding that all decisions have been TWRA’s both coming and going.
“They’re the ones that put in the mussels, the endangered species,” she said.
“We agreed to actually help them if they wanted to relocate on the Gallatin site somewhere else,” Ray said.
TVA would lease the wildlife agency 2 acres and help in transporting equipment and leveling ground.
TVA is doing right by the environment—and an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—by adding the extensive air pollution equipment at the plant, Ray said.
But, for the mussel operation, TVA’s offer bears little resemblance to the current situation.
The power producer would not be providing the plentiful pumped river water and free electricity that center supporters say has enabled it to grow mussels quickly with a high rate of survival.
“It’s a shame,” said Kendall Moles with the Tennessee Cooperative Fishery Research Unit at Tennessee Tech. “It takes a few years to get the facility up and running. Then it takes a couple of years to figure out what really works there. We had just started making good headway. Then we get the rug yanked out from under our feet.”
TVA isn’t exactly commitment-free, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After consulting in 2006 with the federal wildlife service on how it might reduce the effect of operation and maintenance of its dams, TVA used the assistance to TWRA as one of its points.
“TVA will cooperate with appropriate staff from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to make fish culture raceways at the Gallatin Steam Plant available for Mollusk production,” the October 2006 wildlife service document said.
TVA said it did just that, and has gone even farther by offering help in a move.
“TVA has fulfilled the ‘make available’ conditions in the October 2006 document,” a written statement from TVA said.
Aquatic center proves successful
Mussel raising is tricky and the Gallatin facility—the state’s only such operation—has shone as it grew species that include pink mucket, snuffbox and painted creekshells, according to Gina Hancock, state director for the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.
“It has been a phenomenal success,” she said. “It’s incredibly important for mussel recovery. It’s not easy doing what they’re trying to do. They really seemed to have cracked the code on what mussels will respond to.”
Depending on the species and water temperature, mussel larvae spend two weeks to months attached to a fish’s gills before dropping off. The center raises them for up to two years before release.
Such facilities often show a 1-3 percent survival rate with 10 percent viewed as good, Moles said. Initial estimates of survival at the Cumberland River Aquatic Center ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent, depending on the species, according to TWRA’s David Sims, who runs the facility.
Thousands of the mussels as well as thousands of state-endangered lake sturgeon, and, also alligator gar have been raised there and released in Tennessee waters.
The center also has quarantined mussels for research on TVA’s ash spill at its Kingston plant, and it has worked on relocations, temporarily holding thousands of collected adult mussels that have gone to areas in rivers where restoration is needed.
Moles said that access to constant, high volumes of river water that TVA pulls from the Cumberland for the Gallatin plant made the current set-up ideal.
“Not all water is the same,” he said.
He has worked on projects elsewhere and at the center, including one to try to determine the effect of drought on mussels. He said the raw water running through its tanks carries an excellent natural food source with its algae and detritus for the mussels.
“It’s hard to do a study in controlled conditions and try to make it as real as possible. At that facility, flow-through is river water. It made it much easier for us. The results are more comparable to what’s actually going on in the rivers.”
Traditional fish hatcheries generally pull water from deep in the lake. That water is less productive and usually requires artificially feeding the mussels.
Dams affect aquatic habitat
About 75 percent of the 300 species of mussels once found in this country have gone extinct, are endangered or in need of management. Tennessee has about 110 species remaining, though they are in decline, which is a remarkably large number compared to most other states. The bivalves are valuable as biological water filters for rivers, for use in research and as food for other wildlife. Their shells are sought commercially for the cultured pearl industry.
One culprit in their continuing loss is dams that harm the aquatic habitat in rivers, changing water quality, flow and temperature, and TVA owns a series along the Tennessee River system. The Corps has dams along the Cumberland system.
TVA signed a memorandum of understanding last year with the Corps, TWRA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy to work together in protecting freshwater mussels and restoring them to the state’s rivers.
The Corps had already set aside $700,000 for the Cumberland River Aquatic Center at the Gallatin plant. About $310,000 has been spent to expand with a small office, wet lab and classroom for student, scout and other groups. Additional pumps were bought to one day draw the plant’s warm discharge water—in addition to the raw river water that is now used.
What is happening with the center is shooting a hole in the effort.
“The coordination between all of our partners on this issue is a work in progress,” said Lee Roberts, a spokesman for the Nashville District Corps office.
The matter will continue to be discussed with TVA.
The federal wildlife service is watching closely.
“We are trying to help figure out somewhere that is just as good but that TWRA could afford to run,” said Peggy Shute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant field supervisor in Cookeville. “We don’t know what the solution is.”