A Zombie Sighting in SF Bay

Sep 5, 2019
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

Once-through cooling. For decades, power plants along the San Francisco, Pittsburg, and Antioch shorelines used this technology. 

Powerful pumps sucked Bay water into local power plants, pulling in larvae and small fish that died by the force. Intake screens trapped larger fish in the water rushing in. Heated water dumped into the Bay killed fish eggs and made it too warm for some Bay creatures to survive. 

That’s why polluting power plants were forced to stop using this deadly technology in San Francisco Bay. In 2010, Baykeeper and other environmental groups successfully advocated for a statewide phaseout of once-through cooling. Local power plants that had this destructive technology have since closed or no longer use it.   

But now, a new generation of companies are reanimating this long-dead technology, and it's like bringing to life a zombie.

A company called Nautilus Data Technologies recently tried to resurrect this cooling system in San Francisco Bay. They proposed building a large data storage and data processing facility on the Bay's Alameda shoreline.

The data center proposed to pump millions of gallons of water from the Bay daily and pipe it through the building to cool a massive complex of computer servers. Warm, used water would then be pumped back into the Bay. It was essentially once-through cooling brought back to life.

An Alameda resident tipped Baykeeper off about the proposed plan. Our scientists investigated and found that fish spawn near the proposed site and seals hunt in the area. 

Just like the old power plants, the data center’s pumps, pipes, and screens would kill fish and wildlife. The intake and release of water would also alter the Bay's natural currents. And warmer water released back into the Bay could kill fish eggs and raise the risk of a toxic algae bloom.

Baykeeper staff discussed our concerns with company representatives and city officials. We then sent a letter to the Alameda City Council outlining the threats the data center posed to the Bay. The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and many Alameda residents also raised strong objections.

At a June city council meeting, Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ashcraft made a statement opposing the project, specifically citing Baykeeper's concerns. The city council had planned to approve the data center. But instead, they voted unanimously to reject it, thus putting an abrupt end to the zombie resurrection. 

Yet threats from polluters never end. San Francisco Bay is surrounded by 86 cities, 42 sewage treatment plants, 5 oil refineries, and more than 1,600 additional industrial facilities. The Bay needs people who will stay on alert, identify polluters, and stop the constant threats.   

Baykeeper's staff does just that. And in this case, we got help from an Alameda tipster. 

You can help defend San Francisco Bay, too. If you spot pollution or find out about a development project that might harm the Bay, call Baykeeper's Pollution Hotline, at 1-800-KEEP-BAY (1-800-533-7229), e-mail hotline@baykeeper.org.

Headshot photo by Gail Odom

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