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USACE Agrees to Reveal Dam Pollution

Friday, August 8, 2014

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will start disclosing how much oil pollution its largest dams in Oregon and Washington send into waterways—information it has never been forced to give up.

USACE agreed Monday (Aug. 4) to report the information for eight dams as part of a settlement agreement with conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper.

USACE admits no wrongdoing in the settlement, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, but it will pay $143,500 in attorney fees to end the year-long consolidated lawsuit by the conservation group.

Under the settlement, the Corps will now have to notify the group of any spills at eight hydroelectric dams: the Bonneville, John Day and McNary in Oregon; and the Dalles, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington.

USACE dams

According to Columbia Riverkeeper, 1,500 gallons of PCB-laden oil was discharged at the Ice Harbor Dam (pictured) in 2012. USACE settled a lawsuit with the conservation group and will now start reporting oil pollution discharged from eight dams in Oregon and Washington State.

Eventually, the settlement could force USACE to obtain permits for all of its dams throughout the country.

694 Dams

Columbia Riverkeeper originally filed three separate federal-court complaints on July 31, 2013: one each in Oregon, the Western District of Washington, and the Eastern District of Washington.

USACE manages 694 dams throughout the country and says its Dam Safety Program uses a risk-informed approach to ensure the dams "do not present unacceptable risks to people, property, or the environment, with the emphasis on people."

According to the settlement, USACE already has Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure plans at each of the dams and conducts annual drills with other agencies to ensure they are capable of responding to a spill.

'Dozens of Oil pills'

The complaints alleged that the Corps discharged pollutants from the eight hydroelectric dams in violation of the Clean Water Act. According to Columbia Riverkeeper, the original suit "described dozens of oil spills and chronic oil leaks at the dams."

For example, USACE reported discharging 1,500 gallons of transformer oil containing polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) at the Ice Harbor Dam in 2012. The PCBs in this oil, according to Columbia Riverkeeper, were at levels 14 million percent greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards.

"This is a huge day for clean water," said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper's Executive Director. "For years, the dams have discharged harmful oil pollution into the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and finally that will stop.

"With the dams coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act, hopefully we will see an end to toxic spills and chronic seepage of pollutants that have been harming our community."

Pollution Permits & Public Reporting

Within one year, the Corps will have to apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits for eight of the largest dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The permits will limit the amount of oil and toxic pollution discharged by the dams.

Rep. Doc Hastings
Official photo

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) wants to USACE to justify the settlement, which he says will impede operation and "empower" the EPA to enforce "stringent" regulations.

While the EPA already had the authority to regulate pollution from the dams, it was not able to make USACE file for pollution permits. USACE previously told state agencies that security could be compromised if it disclosed the mechanical workings of the dams, the Associated Press reported.

For the first time, the Corps will also have to monitor the type and quantity of pollution being discharged. It must also complete an assessment of whether it is feasible to switch from using petroleum products as lubricants in dams to using other biodegradable oils.

If the Corps determines environmentally acceptable lubricants can be used on in-water equipment, it will have an additional six months to make the switch.

Environmentally acceptable lubricants are already used on portions of the Dalles and John Day dams, according to the settlement.

USACE also has one year to prepare a final regional Oil Accountability Plan for its Northwestern Division and apply that plan to each dam. The accountability plan will track any addition and removal/recovery of oils and greases, and it will include inspection, monitoring, assessment, testing and transfer procedures.

Columbia River pollution
Facebook / Columbia Riverkeeper

"For years, the dams have discharged harmful oil pollution into the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and finally that will stop," said Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper.

The Corps will also be required to report on its findings and make that information publicly available online.

Concern over Settlement

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, expressed concern over the settlement process.

In a letter Wednesday (Aug. 6) to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the commanding general of USACE, Hastings said the settlement "was negotiated behind closed-doors by the Justice Department with a litigious group without consultation or input from those most directly impacted."

Hastings is now requesting "an immediate and thorough" explanation justifying the use of taxpayer money to pay for the attorney's fees "to a group that has filed or been a party to over 60 lawsuits against the federal government over the past decade."

He said the settlement will "empower" the EPA to enforce "stringent" permit requirements that could slow down or impede operation and maintenance of the dams. "It also sets a host of burdensome and fixed deadline requirements that could lead to even more litigation in the future," Hastings wrote.


Tagged categories: Clean Water Act; Environmental Controls; EPA; Government; Lawsuits; Locks and dams; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/8/2014, 8:28 AM)

Why the heck are they still using PCB transformer oil? New PCBs were banned in the USA 35 years ago.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (8/8/2014, 9:58 AM)

Rep. Hastings is correct. Why do we need to pay the legal bills? Here again, the lawyers of the world win big. Also, getting concerned about 8 dams is a bit specious. Why didn't the Columbia Riverkeeper's sue all the recreational boaters, jet skiers etc. who cause far more water pollution than eight dams. I lived in the Tri-Cities a few years back and it was amazing how much oil sheen there was at the boat marinas.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/11/2014, 8:39 AM)

PCBs are considerably nastier than engine oil.

Comment from John Fauth, (8/11/2014, 5:00 PM)

Once again government proves how deeply steeped they are in "do as I say, not as I do". And off they go to their dachas, while the proletariat believes it is they who are being served.

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