The coal-burning Big Bend Power Station on Florida's western coast is part of an energy system that provides over 730,000 people with power. But for several dozen hulking, gray-skinned manatees, it means survival.
Because during the winter for the past thirty years, these endangered "cows of the sea" come to this power station discharge canal when temperatures dip below 70 degrees. Although the manatees may have learned that the discharge canal's warm water is a lifesaver, a continued reliance on these stations could be their downfall.
A majority of Big Bend's units are coal-powered, and these stations are a common enemy in the 2015's Paris Agreement, currently ratified by 112 countries, which calls for the "rapid decarbonization of the global power sector." But ten Florida power stations, including Big Bend, are inadvertently saving the manatee. What happens when they shut down?
Despite their bovine nickname, manatees are more closely related to elephants. These marine mammals need air from the surface to survive. Because of this, and because of their steady diet of floating vegetation, algae, and seagrass, manatees are usually seen swimming in shallow waters.
The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee (a slight variation from its African and Amazonian cousins), roams the shores of western Florida. For decades it was considered an endangered species. However, thanks to protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, things are getting better for the sea cow. Manatee population drastically rebounded in the last 25 years. In 1991, aerial surveys taken after an alarming number of manatee deaths the year before showed that there were only 1,267 manatees left in Florida. This January, a similar survey revealed that 6,300 manatees now swam in state waters, dropping manatees from "endangered" to "threatened."
All manatees need warm water, which makes Florida a nice place to hang out. During the summer months, warm water hugs the balmy coast. As winter approaches, though, water temperatures take a nosedive, and manatees need to find warm water fast or risk fatal cold shock. While some natural dying-off always happens, 2010 was a particularly rough year when nearly 700 died due to record cold.
Manatees often huddle in freshwater springs and rivers, as if they were sea bears hibernating in their watery cave. In the past 30 years, though, manatees have discovered another source of warm water—one created by humans. That gift is both a blessing and a curse.
A MAN-MADE MANATEE HAVEN
On Tampa Bay's shores close to Apollo Beach is Tampa Electric Company's Big Bend Power Station. Today, it generates more than 1,700 megawatts of power from its four coal-powered units and one natural gas/oil unit, which were built between the 70s and the late '00s. They are all still in operation today.
To cool down the unit, the company pulls water from the Tampa Bay and pumps it through the machinery. After cycling through the system, clean warm water is released back into a nearby discharge canal. After building their fourth coal-powered unit in 1985, TECO noticed a few heavy-set visitors flocking to their canal. Later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked TECO to close off the canal to fishermen and boaters who might hurt the manatee guests and declared the area a wildlife sanctuary.
In December 1986, the company opened the viewing center for watching manatees and other marine life, including fish and rays enjoy the canal as well. Today, the Manatee Viewing Center at Big Bend sees an average of a quarter-million visitors a year.
And it's much more than just a tourist trap. Having a concentration of manatees in one location helps researchers like Andy Garrett, a marine mammal biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Manatees can often be identified by their scars, usually received from run-ins with boats, so photographing them at the visitor center allows biologists to follow manatees throughout their 40-year lifespan. Scientists also use the center for genetic and tissue testing to help better protect future manatees, and even to nurse injured or sick creatures back to health.
A TEMPORARY FIX, A LONG-TERM KILLER
There's a delicious sort of irony in the manatee story—coal plants, so vilified as environmental ills, offering a warm harbor for an endangered species. Yet the risk of this arrangement is becoming clearer as the years go by.
The plant itself doesn't have a sterling environmental protection record. The power station's website says it "meets strict environmental regulations," but it has run into trouble in the past. In 1999, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against TECO due in part to violations at Big Bend for "illegally releas[ing] massive amounts of air pollutants, contributing to some of the most severe environmental problems facing the nation today." It was settled, but TECO had to install "permanent emissions-control equipment" and pay a $3.5 million civil penalty.
Despite these changes, a study in 2013 (using 2011 data) found that Florida was third in the country in power plant carbon dioxide emissions and Big Bend was Florida's second-worst polluter, though TECO disputed the claims. Garrett says he's yet to see any negative impact from pollutants on the manatee population. Rather, the problems from the manatees' perspective could come when Big Bend is no more. A 2013 Marine Mammal Commission report speculated that lack of modernization could lead to the plant being completely retired in just five or ten years. If that happens, the effects of these mass closures could be disastrous.
"[Manatees] are very memory-driven... [and] will remember and go where warm water is...show[ing] up year after year, waiting," says Garrett, "We had a situation in the Jacksonville-area where the animals would sit and wait for the warm water until they actually died."
Because of their long-running reliance on the power plants, the manatees who harbor at Big Bend probably will be unaware of other warm water spots nearby. In addition, humans have destroyed or blocked other natural warm water locations, like springs or thermal basins, that once were manatee refuges. This perfect storm of bad news for manatees could lead to a mass casualty event that would rival times when manatees dangerously teetered on the brink of extinction.
It's not just Big Bend, either. According to a Marine Mammal Commission report, 60 percent of the Florida manatee population use the 10 power plant discharge canals or outfalls across the state for keeping cozy during the winter, and all of these power plants are anywhere from 40 to 70 years old.
But for all its doom and gloom, the 2013 report does also offer some hope. Ideas include asking federal and state agencies to buy up natural springs for manatee habitats, removing human-made dams, restricting human activity near natural springs during winter months, and even experimenting with moving manatees to other warm water spots in the state.
Whatever the solution, it won't be a quick one. The report says it took 50 years for the manatees to become reliant on power stations, and it will take just as long to wean them off of it. Changes need to happen now and can't wait for these plants to close down. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they are currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research solutions. They told Popular Mechanics that they are currently restoring several non-industrial warm-water habitats that could work as alternatives.
For now, Florida manatees keep happily showing up every winter to Big Bend Power Station. With federal protections still in place, the hope is that this gentle marine mammal's numbers will continue to rise, but uncertainty looms. While closing the Big Bend Power Station will be a victory for our climate, it could spell disaster for the Florida manatee—a disaster of our own making.