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Group Criticizes Columbia Cleanup

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, January 20, 2004

Crews continued cleaning up an oil spill in the Columbia River on Monday, while a representative of the environmental group Columbia RiverKeeper called for an investigation into the Army Corps of Engineers' oil-handling procedures at its dams.

The latest spill occurred Thursday at The Dalles Dam after water-filled cooling pipes broke due to freezing temperatures the week before.

The agency initially estimated that only 75 gallons of oil had leaked into the river, but later estimates put that number as high as 1,000 gallons. Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said environmental containment crews had recovered more than 600 gallons of additional oil within The Dalles Dam, and more than 4,000 feet of booms had been deployed at the mouths of creeks and streams along the river 44 miles downstream to Bonneville Dam.

In addition, Rabe reported for the first time Monday that a sheen of oil had migrated below Bonneville Dam.

Rabe and Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Mark McIntyre said the corps continues to review maintenance records and interview employees to determine how much of the light mineral oil may have leaked from transformers at The Dalles.

Brent Foster, an attorney for Columbia RiverKeeper, criticized the corps for failing to get an environmental cleanup crew to the dam until hours after the ruptured pipes were discovered Thursday morning. It wasn't until the next day that the corps and its contractors began deploying booms farther downriver to reduce environmental damage below the dam.

"If the Army Corps had just gone out with booms when it happened, they could have collected a lot of it," Foster said.

Foster said his group will push for a congressional investigation of the corps' history of oil-handling at its Columbia River dams. In May 2002, the Washington Department of Ecology harshly criticized the corps' operation of an oil-water separation tank at Bonneville Dam, saying the agency allowed oil to flow into the Columbia. Earlier that same year, the corps finished cleanup of an old landfill that had sloughed into the river near Bonneville, leaching polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the river above Bonneville Dam.

The transformer at The Dalles Dam had been partially drained late last year. Officials say they won't know how much oil is in the river until they finish draining the transformer.

The broken transformer is one of the last on the Columbia to use oil containing PCBs. Oil containing PCBs was banned in 1978 after it was determined that PCBs cause cancer.

But getting the oil out of the machinery is an intricate process. McIntyre said the oil is specific to a particular transformer, meaning that the entire device must be overhauled before a new lubricant can be introduced.

Transformers predating the ban can still use PCB-laden oil, but new ones cannot.

Erik Robinson
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Group Criticizes Columbia Cleanup
The Columbian, January 20, 2004

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