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Corps Faulted for Oil Spill at The Dalles Dam

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, February 11, 2004

A review finds problems in maintenance, inspections and planning
led to last month's 24-mile sheen

The spill of hundreds of gallons of PCB-tainted oil from The Dalles Dam resulted from poorly maintained equipment, lax inspections and faulty planning by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an independent panel concluded in a report made public this week.

Among the findings, the outside reviewers said that the corps' initial underestimates of the quantity of escaping oil "delayed and hindered" efforts to contain the spill that began early Jan. 15, leaving an oily sheen observers could see 24 miles downriver.

"We think the situation may have been very different had people from the very beginning understood the potential here," said Gary Sanford, a Bonneville Power Administration manager and one of the three independent reviewers convened by the corps. The other two were experts from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Ultimately about 1,300 gallons of mineral oil from a damaged electrical transformer made its way into the Columbia River. During the first three days, corps officials said the spill amounted to no more than about 75 gallons of mineral oil. Effects on fish and wildlife remain under investigation, but officials suspect oil may have killed about 185 shad found dead near the dam.

The spill has drawn greater attention to an ongoing problem of oil leaks and clashes with environmental officials in Washington and Oregon. In the past five years, more than 35 oil spills have occurred at dams operated by the Corps of Engineers on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Washington's Department of Ecology is investigating the latest accident. Spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said the inquiry could lead to orders against the corps, including penalties for legal violations and damages to natural resources.

Some action already under way Deborah Chenoweth, operations division chief for the corps, accepted the findings and recommendations of the independent review panel without dispute. She pledged to act immediately on all recommendations, and said several actions, including increased inspections and a review of spill containment and response readiness at all dams, are already under way.

"The most important thing is to prevent spills," Chenoweth said Tuesday. She declined to discuss the possibility of disciplinary actions against managers or workers involved in the accident.

"I want to give it a full investigation before I make any comments," she said, adding, "I hold myself accountable."

Reviewers described a series of equipment failures and bad judgments leading to the leak and hindering efforts to contain it, starting with the maintenance and inspection of a bank of recently idled transformers, built in 1941. Log books revealed that the weekly inspection of the transformers scheduled for Jan. 11-17 was omitted because workers were too busy.

The leak began when water -- which operators neglected to drain from cooling lines -- froze and ruptured pipes and connectors early Jan. 15. Oil exited the transformers through the broken water pipes.

A secondary containment vessel should have prevented the oil from reaching the river, but it, too, failed. Oil poured through unsealed expansion joints and pipe holes that had gone uninspected. Workers about 6:30 a.m. found many gallons of spilled oil inside the dam's power plant -- four floors below the transformers.

Delay in using containment boom Plant officials assumed, incorrectly, that only a small amount of oil had reached the river on the upstream side of the dam. But the transformer oil tank level gauges were not working, and meanwhile, hidden under a blanket of snow, hundreds of gallons of oil were seeping over a roof and into the river downstream.

Oil was spotted downstream at 8:48 a.m., but reviewers said an oil containment boom wasn't deployed until dusk. The oil seeping over the roof wasn't discovered until Jan. 17. Cleanup crews eventually recovered about 600 gallons of the 1,300 that entered the river.

Greg deBruler of Columbia Riverkeeper, a conservation group, said the outside recommendations are encouraging but that an outside authority needs to ensure that the corps follows them. He and other critics said they still want to know whether so many things could go wrong at another dam.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Corps Faulted for Oil Spill at The Dalles Dam
The Oregonian, February 11, 2004

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