Greens Call Bonneville Dam
by Jonny Bonner
PORTLAND - The Army Corps of Engineers created a "pollution crisis" on the Columbia River, increasing some Native Americans' cancer risk by 5,000 percent, by neglecting the Bonneville Dam and other smaller dams, which have turned into grease- and oil-spilling polluters, environmentalists claim in court.
Columbia Riverkeeper sued the Corps of Engineers and Lt. Gen Thomas Bostick, its commanding general and chief of engineers, in Federal Court.
"Studies have confirmed and added to the overwhelming scientific evidence on toxic contamination in the Columbia River Basin," the Oregon-based environmental group says in the lawsuit.
It claims Corps of Engineers have not properly maintained turbines at the Bonneville, John Day and McNary dams, causing discharge of oil, grease and other lubricants and pollutants, in violation of the Clean Water Act.
"The Columbia River is one of the West's great river systems. This river supports rich fishing traditions, provides water for communities and agriculture, recreation opportunities, and power for hydroelectric dams. The river is also severely degraded by pollution. Toxic pollution threatens the health of people that eat local fish and jeopardizes the public's right to eat fish caught locally. Rising water temperatures also threaten the health of salmon and other aquatic life that relies on cool water for survival," the complaint states.
"In 2006, EPA designated the Columbia River Basin a critical large aquatic ecosystem because toxic contamination and other pollution are so severe. In 2009, EPA released an in-depth report on toxic pollution in the Columbia, the 'Columbia River Basin: State of River Report for Toxics.' EPA's report concluded that harmful pollutants are moving up the food chain, impacting humans, fish, and wildlife. As the report explains, '[i]n 1992, an EPA national survey of contaminants in fish in the United States alerted EPA and others to a potential health threat to tribal and other people who eat fish from the Columbia River Basin.' This survey prompted further study on the contaminated fish and the potential impacts on tribal members.
"In particular, EPA funded four Columbia River tribes, through the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, to study contaminant levels in fish caught at traditional fishing sites. The study demonstrated the presence of 92 toxic chemicals in fish consumed by tribal members, resulting in a 50-fold increase in cancer risk among tribal members whose diets rely on river-caught fish. Contaminants found in these fish include PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls], dioxins, furans, arsenic, mercury, and DDE [dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene], a toxic breakdown product of DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane]."
The Columbia River rises in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, flows into Washington, and turns west, forming most of the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 hydroelectric dams on the river's main stem.
Bonneville Dam, a major hydroelectric dam 40 miles east of Portland, was built and is managed by the Corps of Engineers.
The complaint states: "Upon information and belief, the Corps discharges oils, greases, lubricants, and other pollutants at the dams collected from various sources through sumps, including powerhouse drainage sumps, un-watering sumps, spillway sumps, navigation lock sumps, and other systems. These discharges have occurred each and every time during the six years and sixty days prior to the filing of this complaint that the Corps made the discharges and are continuing to occur or are reasonably likely to reoccur. Of these discharges, only those made from the oil water separator that treats and discharges water from Powerhouse 1 at the Bonneville Dam are authorized by an NPDES [national pollutant discharge elimination system] permit.
"Upon information and belief, the Corps discharges cooling water, and the heat associated therewith, at the dams that has been used to cool a variety of dam components and materials, including turbines, generators, transformers, and lubricating oils. These discharges have occurred each and every day during the six years and sixty days prior to the filing of this complaint, and are continuing to occur or are reasonably likely to reoccur. These discharges are not authorized by an NPDES permit.
"Upon information and belief, the Corps also discharges oils, greases, lubricants, and other pollutants from the dams due to spills, equipment failures, operator errors, turbine start-ups, and other similar events. The discharges that have been reported and that have occurred during the six years and sixty days prior to the filing of this complaint are summarized in the tables attached. ... Discharges of this nature at the dams are continuing to occur or are reasonably likely to reoccur. These discharges are not authorized by an NPDES permit.
"The discharges from the dams described herein are discharges of pollutants to navigable waters from point sources that violate section 301(a) of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a), if made without the authorization of a NPDES permit."
Columbia Riverkeeper says it aims "to restore and protect the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it, from the headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. To achieve these objectives, Columbia Riverkeeper operates scientific, educational, and legal programs aimed at protecting water quality, air quality, and habitat in the Columbia River Basin."
It seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to compel the Army Corps of Engineers to stop unpermitted discharges of pollutants from the dams, "unless and until the Corps obtains national pollutant discharge elimination system permits authorizing the discharges."
Columbia Riverkeeper is represented by Brian Knutsen with Smith & Lowney, of Seattle, and Lauren Goldberg, of Hood River, Ore.
Is Your Fish Toxic? YouTube video by Columbia Riverkeeper
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