The metal basket in the bowels of Redondo Beach's AES power plant held what looked like a plastic cup, a few remnants of plastic foam and other debris that found its way into the facility's seawater intake system.
But a sign posted nearby stands as a reminder of what else can inadvertently get sucked in from the vast ocean next door: fish and other marine organisms that wouldn't survive a trip past that basket and through the plant's antiquated cooling system.
The warning reminds workers to report any signs of marine life to the SEA Lab - a nonprofit aquarium that is housed in a former plant pumphouse just across Harbor Drive.
Redondo's AES plant, like 18 others along the state's coastline, has for decades relied on once-through cooling technology to generate electricity. The systems suck in saltwater to cool the plants' turbines, and then quickly release the warmed water back to sea.
But the process this week faces new restrictions that leave its future in question along the California coastline.
Officials with the state Water Resources Control Board, which will vote on the rule Tuesday, say the goal is to come into compliance with a decades-old section of the federal Clean Water Act that requires plants to use the "best technology available" in the interest of protecting marine life.
The proposal assumes a cooling process that uses mostly recycled water and about 7 percent seawater meets the technology mandate. As a result, plants statewide - including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Scattergood and Harbor facilities, as well as the NRG plant in El Segundo - could be forced to adjust their ocean intake rates by varying deadlines.
"Our goal is to eliminate the impacts associated with it, not necessarily to eliminate once-
through cooling," said Jonathan Bishop, the board's chief deputy director. But, he added: "That is the easiest way for plants to comply."
The policy is at least five years in the making, and has been vetted by various regulatory agencies, plant operators, utility companies and ocean advocacy groups. In its current form, released in March, the policy has drawn strong criticism from members of the environmental community.
Yet power plant operators, including the LADWP and AES, have expressed their own concerns and questioned the proposed timeline, arguing that repowering too many units at the same time could pose too big a financial burden and place too much risk on utility companies.
Together, the state's 19 coastal power plants are capable of withdrawing 15 billion gallons of water daily. According to board estimates, that translates to 2.6 million fish and 19 billion fish larvae killed on an annual basis - either by becoming trapped against screening devices or pulled into intake structures.
AES Southland President Eric Pendergraft, who oversees the Redondo Beach plant and others in Long Beach and Huntington Beach, said those numbers need to be put into context, as many of the organisms that get pulled into the pipes might not have survived in nature anyway.
"The majority of fish have very high natural mortality rates," said Shane Beck of MBC Applied Environmental Sciences, which has done work for AES. "So you have fish that (produce) millions of eggs. The vast majority of those don't make it."
Nonetheless, Pendergraft said the company is committed to repowering at each of its Southern California sites to meet the mandate, though he's asked for extended deadlines. The plan calls for the Redondo Beach plant to comply by 2020.
"We can't comply without making major modifications, and that's what we plan to do, anyway," Pendergraft said. "We don't have an issue with the policy, we just need the schedule extended a little more.
"What we've proposed is that we'll be 50 percent compliant in 2020."
LADWP officials have expressed additional concerns, writing in a letter to the board that they object to a "one-
size-fits-all focus" and believe the policy poses a "serious threat" to the agency's power supply.
Despite having deadlines extended for two of its facilities, the LADWP argues the proposed policy should permit extensions in excess of two years in the event of delays with regulatory permits.
And the latest draft of the policy has also sparked concerns among environmental groups, who fear it provides loopholes for plant operators who might not want to do much to change their operations.
In a letter last month signed by more than two dozen organizations, the writers said the policy "deals a blow both to the protection of our ocean, coast, bays and estuaries and also to the future of stakeholder collaboration."
Heal the Bay staff scientist Sarah Abramson Sikich said "to come out and see such a large change (from a draft circulated last year) was a big surprise and of great concern."
She and others take particular issue with revisions in the policy that let power plants choose one of two paths to compliance. The first track calls for plants to reduce their ocean-
water intake flow rate by
93 percent, which is comparable to using a closed-cycle wet cooling system that relies on just 7 percent seawater.
The other choice, which has come under fire, is for power generators to reduce by a minimum of 83 percent the amount of marine organisms that are either sucked into cooling systems or are trapped against screening devices. That could mean some plants continue to use once-through cooling systems, though less frequently, or else relocate ocean intake pipes, add more screening devices, or use other technologies to achieve the reductions.
The environmental groups argue the revisions would allow plants to choose the less- restrictive standard without first demonstrating why they can't meet the tighter threshold. They describe the policy "as such a marked step backwards" that it fails to meet the intent of the Clean Water Act and state environmental laws.
Linda Sheehan of the California Coastkeeper Alliance said that last fall she considered a draft of once-through cooling rules "workable." Now, she said, "we view this as almost a complete rewrite of the policy."
Bishop, the board's chief deputy director, said the rule isn't intended to encourage plants to take the less-restrictive road.
"The changes came about based upon a number of comments that we received," he said.
And he disputed arguments comparing the mortality rates of organisms moving through intake pipes to those in nature.
"Ocean creatures are broad spawners. They put out a large amount of larvae," he said. "But that's part of the ecosystem other species live off those."
In the South Bay and Harbor Area, at least one power plant already has committed to cutting back its use of seawater.
El Segundo's NRG plant plans to replace three of four units with dry-cooling by 2013, company spokeswoman Lori Neuman said. A fourth unit that is not part of the repowering project would be expected to meet the once-through cooling requirements by Dec. 31, 2015.
Neuman said the company anticipates receiving a permit from the California Energy Commission this summer, with the new dry-cooling units coming online by summer of 2013.
What: The state Water Resources Control Board will vote on the latest version of a policy for operating ocean-water cooling systems in coastal power plants.
Where: Sacramento. For audio and video webcast links, go to www.calepa.ca.gov/broadcast/
When: 9 a.m. Tuesday
More: If passed by the water board, the policy won't become effective until approved by the state's Office of Administrative Law, which could take six months.