Bloomberg Businessweek By Mya Frazier
April 2, 2020
The view from the parking lot at Big Bend Power Station, a 1,500-acre plant built in the 1960s to turn coal into electricity just south of Tampa, includes an unexpected sight. Bordering the parking lot are dozens of solar panels, set against a skyline dominated by three smokestacks whose vapor curls across the blue. The panels are little more than a wink—solar is a small fraction of the energy mix at Big Bend—but they suggest, at least, a hoped-for future when the plant no longer relies on coal.
The temperature the day of my visit was 53F—brisk, but perfect for the unusual sight I was actually there to see. Stanley Kroh, manager of land and stewardship programs for Big Bend’s operator, Tampa Electric Co., greeted me near an empty picnic grove. We headed inside the free exhibit, walking past a line of visitors waiting to pose beside a bronze manatee with a gummy smile. Speakers blared “Welcome to the Manatee Viewing Center, where nature meets technology!” on loop.
“We’ve had people that will say, ‘Isn’t it terrible that they put a power plant right next to this manatee sanctuary?’ ” Kroh said. “They get it completely backwards.” We traversed a cement walkway beneath a mangrove canopy—the plant was built on coastal land dredged of pristine mangrove swamps—until we reached a narrow pier jutting into a canal the width of a football field. Across the waterway were massive piles of coal. Conveyor belts zigged up from them, transporting lumps to the plant’s four generation units, which are also fueled by natural gas and are cooled by water sucked in from Tampa Bay.
Also before us, lurking beneath waters turned turbid by leaf tannins and warmed by the nonstop flow of hot water from the plant, were manatees—a hundred or more, by Kroh’s estimate. They remained shadowy blobs until the moment they emerged for air, their noses flaring lightly before spraying water and emitting an abrupt pfff. Then they’d rotate to reveal their ungainly bodies, looking like hippopotamus-walrus hybrids gorged to bursting with bread.
Manatees are the chubby vegan hippies of the sea. Neither predator nor prey, the world’s three remaining species are all considered vulnerable, including the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), of which the Florida manatee is a subspecies. Manatees seem to have evolved almost immune to Darwinian struggle. They’re small-brained, radically farsighted, almost deaf, and barely able to smell—effectively floating digestion machines propelled by paddle-like tails. They survive mostly on seagrass, 100 to 200 pounds of which is working through a manatee’s intestinal system at a given moment. Their lungs stretch the entire length of their trunk, helping them maintain optimal buoyancy so they can munch like Jersey cows grazing a field of clover. Yet though manatees are sitting targets, even sharks leave them alone, uninterested in an animal that, despite its corpulence, lacks a tasty, insulating layer of blubber. So unflappable are manatees that a wild one will roll over and let its only true predator—us—rub its tender underside.
Although manatees were hunted to near extinction for their meat and hides in the 19th century, a remnant ended up in the Florida Everglades, where they “have survived their persecution best,” as one biologist put it. Conservation efforts have included an 1893 statewide hunting ban and the animal’s addition to the endangered species list in 1967, but their resurgence in Florida may owe more to an unusual habitat network: 10 for-profit power plants. As manatees’ preferred habitat, natural warm-water springs, was being destroyed to create more space for humans, they began wintering in heated coal- and oil-fired plant runoff. Of the 7,500 to 10,300 manatees estimated to live in Florida, roughly half depend on these discharges.
This was what Kroh meant when he said visitors have it backward. The plant wasn’t built near the sanctuary; the manatees came there, traveling more than 100 miles north of their historic range to Tampa Bay, then down the almost mile-long canal to huddle in the steady rush of hot water flowing out of the plant. TECO Energy Inc., the parent of Tampa Electric, is one of two major utilities that have turned this unlikely dependence into a tenuous symbiotic relationship, opening manatee viewing centers and putting a friendly, eco-conscious face on an industry that’s one of the state’s top polluters. The utilities have helped make the manatee a beloved symbol of Florida—its official marine mammal and a major tourist attraction.
In recent years, though, a potentially tragic situation has emerged: As the plants, all of which are at least a half-century old, reach the point of requiring major upgrades, they’re being converted away from coal and toward natural gas and to a lesser extent renewables, fuels that don’t require the same volume of water for cooling as coal and oil. This outcome, highly desirable for cutting plant costs and greenhouse gas emissions, could have the unintended consequence of stranding thousands of manatees. Four of the 10 plants the animals have historically relied on are already closed. Within the next few years, Big Bend will retire one of its four coal-fired units and convert another to a gas-fired combined-cycle operation. The two remaining coal-fired units discharging warm water into the canal are getting old, with one only two years away from the average retirement age of U.S. coal units and the other 11 years away. The last of the 10 plants is likely to close in the next three decades or so. (Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and the founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, introduced Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at moving the U.S. toward a 100% clean energy economy, including closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the U.S.)
Scientists don’t yet know if manatees can be weaned from artificial discharges in time, let alone how much it might cost. Decades of good public relations for the industry haven’t led to a workable plan. During temporary shutdowns some plants have tried artificial heaters, at a cost of millions of dollars, but this isn’t a long-term solution, and it won’t work at Big Bend, whose canal is the largest in the state. “It would be just about impossible to do here because of the volume of water,” Kroh said. “I can’t imagine how many heaters it would take to heat just a portion of this canal at the right temperature.”
And even if the manatees could be diverted from the plants, there might be nowhere left for them to go.
In the winter of 1949, on the advice of some fishermen, biologist Joseph Curtis Moore began spending frigid mornings on the Miami Avenue Bridge in that city’s downtown, hoping to spot manatees. The fishermen were right, and Moore swiftly surmised why. “An outflow of warm water from a nearby power plant enters the river from a 6-by-6-foot outlet under the bridge, and the sea cows loiter in this warm current,” he wrote, in the first documented account of symbiosis between manatees and industry.
A population boom was then transforming Florida. Marshlands were being drained to make room for condos and golf courses, canals and sugar cane fields. All that development vastly shrunk the number of springs warmed to the manatee’s preferred 72F, and in some cases, pushed out the animals more abruptly—in another paper, Moore reported that 100 manatees were killed by dynamite as workers widened the Miami River.
Companies such as TECO and Florida Power & Light Co. built power plants along coastal waterways, designing them to suck in massive quantities of cold water, cycle it through generator units, and release the water hot, a process known as once-through cooling. Manatees exhibit what’s known as high site fidelity, returning to the same places each winter and passing on migration paths from mother to calf. Once they arrived at the plants, they quickly became attuned. Researchers observed some waiting days, even weeks, for discharges to return when the facilities broke down or went offline for upgrades.
When, in 1972, the Clean Water Act passed, bringing new restrictions on thermal pollution into force, those habits suddenly posed a danger. Any newly built or upgraded power plant would have to stop releasing hot water, cooling it first to match the temperatures of surrounding waterways so it didn’t become inhospitable to most plant and animal life. “We knew these power plants were an aid for the manatee but also a threat,” recalls Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist who worked on the issue for the state. “If they didn’t continue to operate as they did, it could have caused catastrophic losses.”
Florida manatees couldn’t just migrate south as plants were converted. A swim to the Caribbean would be perilous, given the Gulf Stream’s swift current and the animals’ need for fresh water and shallow grazing pastures. So officials cut a deal with the industry, allowing plants to keep spewing hot water even after upgrades. It was a boon to the utilities, which would have had to spend a fortune on cooling ponds and towers; at Big Bend, discharges sometimes run as hot as 109F, well above the mid-80s average temperature of nearby Tampa Bay. “They have probably saved billions of dollars,” says Rose, who’s now executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club. The industry also got its PR coup. TECO’s viewing center alone has attracted 6 million visitors since opening in 1986.
But as plants have been upgraded in recent decades, with attendant dips in the temperature of effluent, the question of where the manatees will go has returned. In 1999 a task force to study the problem was formed, drawing in scientists, officials, and power company representatives. Its infrequent meetings accomplished little beyond recommending that a plan be created. The task force disbanded in 2007 without coming up with one. Before long the state got a stark reminder of the potential consequences.
On New Year’s Day in 2010, with Florida in the midst of an historic cold snap, temperatures dropped below 50F. Martine de Wit, a veterinarian from the state fish and wildlife commission, turned up the thermostat in her home, as most every Floridian was doing, and hunkered down until she could return to work a few days later. When she did, the first casualties were already arriving.
Day after day, dead manatees were being hauled in from waterways for de Wit’s team to dissect. Sometimes the scientists would finish one truckload only to find another had arrived. When the cold room got full, carcasses would rot in trailers outside. Dissected remains were normally cremated by a rendering service, but the company couldn’t keep up. Agency officials scrambled, at one point quietly transporting hundreds of rib cages and hides to an isolated island off the southern tip of St. Petersburg, where they staged a mass burial on public land.
The carcasses were arriving in progressively worse shape. “They almost looked like zombies,” de Wit says. “Like human frostbite, with the skin starting to die off.” Her team excised lungs inflamed by pneumonia, intestines compacted with feces, and other organs riddled with abscesses—symptoms of cold stress, which in manatees can begin in waters below 68F and cause immune-system breakdown. The scientists were working to confirm the causes of death, document the scale of the event, and fill in gaps in manatee research. “For a long time, we wondered how cold was too cold,” de Wit says.
Outside, record numbers of manatees were taking refuge near power plants. Some 860 swam into discharge canals at two plants operated by Florida Power & Light in Brevard County, near Cape Canaveral. They were fortunate both that they found the plants—132 manatees died elsewhere in Brevard, more than in any other county—and that the facilities avoided the breakdowns rippling through the state power network as demand skyrocketed.
At Big Bend, where more than 300 manatees took refuge, two operational coal-fired units had mechanical difficulties for several days, causing the volume of hot water gushing into the canal to plummet. Water temperatures dropped below 68F, and scientists observed some manatees desperately burrowing into the canal bed in search of warmth. Had the other two coal-fired units gone down, evacuation options would have been limited. Temporary heaters were out because of the canal-size problem. Turbidity booms—essentially floating water barriers—might have kept the cold bay flows out, but the disruption caused by their installation risked driving manatees toward the bay and certain death. The other alternative, capturing and transporting hundreds of manatees, was impossible. De Wit describes the process of netting and hoisting just one as “a rodeo on water.”
In the end, the die-off lasted 89 days and saw 480 manatees killed. The event underscored the animals’ vulnerability and the elusiveness of a long-term relocation fix. Intervening to save even a few proved costly. One bull who’d been found swimming alone and listless, his tail spotted with lesions, near a malfunctioning power plant operated by Duke Energy Corp. in St. Petersburg was shipped with three other manatees via FedEx to the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, at a combined cost of $9,916.88. Named Bartlett by rescuers, the bull spent nine months in Columbus, undergoing a rehabilitation program. Nursing a sick manatee back to health costs the zoo about $13,000 a month, on average; the bill just for romaine lettuce—captivity’s answer to seagrass—can run to $2,500.
The zoo bore the costs for Bartlett. But though the power companies didn’t contribute, when he was shipped back to be released at Big Bend, this time on a $7,500 charter-flight ticket, TECO was quick to celebrate. A dozen people, including several plant workers, lugged Bartlett into the water, nestled in a blue stretcher, before a cheering crowd and TV camera crews. TECO later posted a promotional video of the event to YouTube.
In early 2017 the U.S. Department of the Interior, under pressure from corporate lobbyists and homeowners who’d filed lawsuits attacking conservation regulations, announced that after more than a half-century on the endangered species list, the West Indian manatee and its Florida subspecies would be downgraded to threatened, leaving it less protected than it had once been. Conservationists, scientists, and some Florida lawmakers fiercely opposed the decision.
The department cited the manatee’s population rise since the ’70s, and though this was a success story, to be sure, opponents countered that the move failed to consider intensifying threats, including ongoing habitat loss and the inevitability of power plant closures. Then there was the unknown of climate change and its attendant extreme weather, of the kind that had led to the 2010 die-off.
The ruling did bring with it two potential bright spots: It prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to announce that it would reconvene its warm-water task force and to recommend that Florida’s environmental protection department change the permit process for plant upgrades so it would include a “funding mechanism” to pay for the relocation of manatees to other suitable habitats. Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the wildlife service’s North Florida field office, says the recommendation reflected growing awareness that action was needed and none was obvious. “The decisions we made back then were good for the manatee, but aren’t so good now,” he says. The question is: “How do we un-fubar this?”
Florida’s fish and wildlife service did try, after the original manatee task force was abandoned, to come up with an adaptation plan. Its draft, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, covers options from doing nothing to rehabilitating natural springs to creating entirely new warm-water sites, a strategy described as “technologically and fiscally” uncertain. The plan glumly notes the absence of funding.
Rose finds the document wanting. “We’ve got no direct commitments from the utility companies,” he says. “If you don’t have a mechanism to pay for it, what is it worth?” He estimates that the amount required for habitat restoration would be $100 million or more, not accounting for the extensive pilot studies that would need to come first.
Were the funding mechanism suggested by the U.S. wildlife service to be introduced, the costs would likely be passed on to consumers rather than denting company profits; a law passed in the early 1990s after industry lobbying allows utilities to pass costs for environmental compliance to customers in the form of higher bills. It’s already being used. Since 2009 the state has allowed Florida Power & Light—which operates five of the remaining six plants considered primary manatee refuges and made $2.3 billion in profit in fiscal 2019—to recoup the $22.6 million it’s spent to install and operate heater systems.
“The utilities are not doing this on their dime,” says J.R. Kelly, public counsel for Florida, who represents consumers in utility-related matters. “Customers are paying for it.” (Executives at FP&L and its parent company, NextEra Energy Inc., declined interview requests.)
Big Bend is one of six plants still considered a primary refuge. Documents obtained through a FOIA request show that, more than a decade and a half after its viewing center opened in 1986, it was the lone plant without a manatee protection plan that the state found acceptable. “Without a dependable warm-water refuge at the Big Bend station, manatee cold stress deaths could be significant,” an official at Florida’s fish and wildlife commission wrote to TECO in March 2002. Regulators ultimately submitted a plan on the company’s behalf.
In an email, TECO said this isn’t an accurate picture of the relationship. “We worked closely with the [Department of Environmental Protection] during this time,” a spokeswoman wrote, adding, “we have always maintained a manatee protection plan.” The company also noted that it’s donated $5,000 a year to manatee research since the early 2000s, that it partners with researchers and aquariums to rescue and release sick or injured animals, and that it recently expanded its manatee education center, which it calls one of the best in the state, into a facility that studies their habitats more broadly. TECO has done “far more than is required,” the spokeswoman said.
The number of manatees swimming outside Big Bend has risen steeply, to as many as 810 in 2018, a year when TECO’s profits were nearly $300 million annually. But there’s still no clear plan for the animals a few decades from now, when the coal conveyor belts have stopped for good. The company’s spokeswoman said that marine scientists and regulatory agencies will lead the response to this challenge, with the industry’s support. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with state agencies, is developing a Warm Water Action Plan that we support and will participate in, as this concept is discussed among experts in the years to come,” she wrote.
On a January morning, I drove almost 80 miles north of Tampa to the coastal town of Crystal River, where manatee images grace city hall and most every welcome sign. Since 1960 the winter manatee population in the eponymous waterway has grown from a half dozen to more than 600. Initially they were drawn by a coal-fired plant, but the effluent eventually became more of a stopover en route to the river, which is now the largest natural manatee warming site on the Gulf Coast. (The plant has since been phased out in favor of a new natural gas operation nearby.) Crystal River now draws more than a half-million tourists each year, many of whom partake in swim-with-manatees tours.
I was there for an excursion with Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs, who’s considered the foremost expert on the decline of the state’s warm-water springs. We rented a pontoon boat and wetsuits, so if the chance came, we could jump in and swim with a manatee ourselves.
The sky above was almost cloudless, the water decidedly less vivid below: brown and murky, with visibility of a few feet. “The waters used to be so clear you could see almost to the bottom,” Knight observed as we set out. We headed north in search of one of the 70 artesian springs that feed Kings Bay to create the headwaters of Crystal River, which meanders about 7 miles before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. We drifted among kayakers and fishing boats, past waterfront mansions where retirees sunbathed on elaborate decks, until we came into open water and a system of buoys marking off a manatee protection area.
Just outside the buoys, a tour boat had stopped above an aggregation of manatees huddled near an underwater spring. An air bubble formed on the water’s surface, followed by a mother and a juvenile. We dropped anchor carefully, lest we strike a passing manatee. Knight donned a snorkel and yellow flippers, then dived into the river. Manatees swam by every few minutes, many of them heading out to the gulf for dinner. Knight shot video of one with an underwater camera as it swam within inches of his face.
He was more interested, though, in the riverbed beneath. Groundwater pumping for agriculture and household use has drained the aquifer and diminished the underground pressure that makes the springs flow. With the river running slower as a result, a toxic blue-green algae known as Lyngbya has more time to grow, choking out vegetation such as the eelgrass beds that manatees graze on and that stem the algae’s spread. About 20 minutes later, Knight climbed back on board. “Nothing but algae,” he said.
I dived in myself and saw what looked like a blanket of dun human hair lining the riverbed. When I resurfaced, Knight explained the challenge of slowing algal growth. As global warming brings more powerful and frequent hurricanes, sea levels rise, and the river’s flow weakens against the ocean; the latter’s brine contaminates fresh water, killing off the eelgrass beds. The most obvious solution was the least politically viable: restrictions on groundwater pumping to restore spring flow and strengthen the river’s velocity. In turn the restoration of the springs could conceivably attract more manatees.
Pro-growth Florida has never made a habit of denying requests for groundwater, though. “No one wants to be told they can’t pump more,” Knight said. The embrace of conservation might seem even more unlikely around Kings Bay, where residents acting under the banner Save Crystal River were among those who helped bring about the Interior Department’s decision to reclassify the manatee. Their lawsuit, filed with help from the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, had argued that boating restrictions imposed to protect manatees were a property-rights violation.
Sometimes, though, the enemy of your enemy can be your friend. Even as the lawsuit proceeded toward the downgrade, Save Crystal River started tackling a foe it had in common with the manatees: Lyngbya, which also mucks up the water’s surface, sullying those pristine waterfront views. Drawing on $17.7 million in state money, the group has been dredging canals and planting eelgrass beds, nurturing the vegetation in cages so manatees don’t devour it. The community is also holding “One Rake at a Time” events to fill kayaks and barges with algae; Duke Energy has hosted some and sent employee volunteers. Save Crystal River is hoping to have the bay restored by 2023.
But algae collection alone won’t create a viable long-term sanctuary for the manatee, any more than artificial heaters will. “It’s like giving something a haircut—it’s gonna grow back,” Knight said. As the symbiotic relationship between the animals and the power plants grows more tenuous, someone will have to find—and fund—a long-term fix. Knight once put the need to me in stark terms: “There’s a real conflict coming between the number of manatees and the declining habitat. Someone needs to have their eyes open for a massive collision before we have a bunch of dead manatees on our hands.”