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Agency Cites Corps over Columbia Spills

by Ben Jacklet
Portland Tribune, May 21, 2004

Environmental regulators have issued their most scathing critique yet of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to prevent and respond to oil spills in the Columbia River system.

In a detailed notice of violation addressed to Brig. Gen. William Grisoli of the corps’ Portland-based Northwestern Division, the Washington Department of Ecology blamed inadequate training and outdated equipment for the 33 oil spills that have occurred at nine corps dams in the past five years.

The Monday notice warned that more spills are likely if the corps does not improve its ability to detect leaks at the dams it manages and contain oil once it has spilled.

“If the corps had a spill tomorrow, they would not have the equipment or the training to respond effectively,” said ecology department spokeswoman Mary-Ellen Voss. “And they haven’t done what is necessary to prevent spills in the first place.”

The notice of violation gives the corps 30 days to produce a detailed plan on how to fix 15 identified problems, or else face potential penalties.

The corps was criticized in January after a spill it originally had estimated at 75 gallons turned out to be 1,300 gallons of mineral oil containing PCBs, creating a 20-mile slick from The Dalles Dam downstream to Bonneville Dam.

A 15-gallon spill reported Tuesday was the fifth reported at the dam since the large spill in January.

Dams typify ‘another era’

Homer Perkins, chief of public affairs for the corps’ Northwestern Division, said his agency has tried, within its budget, to address the oil spills at the dams. But “some of these things are going to require money and manpower that we don’t have,” he said.

The corps uses large volumes of mineral and hydraulic oil to lubricate the turbines, generators, transformers and hydraulic systems of the dams it operates. The 21 turbines and generators at Bonneville Dam, for example, can contain 160,000 gallons of oil at any one time.

Perkins said many of the oil spills reported at the dams were quite small and posed little threat to the environment. Besides, he said, retrofitting dams built in 1938 to prevent more spills is not a simple task: “These dams were built in another era. The environment wasn’t a big deal. It was more like, let’s get these babies up and get the electricity flowing.”

But critics of the corps say that the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act and other environmental laws are hardly recent developments, and the corps should have to obey the laws like everybody else.

“The corps should be doing everything they can to prevent these spills from happening and making sure they have systems in place to deal with them when they do happen,” said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. “But that hasn’t happened. And as citizens we have the right to ask, ‘Why is a federal agency behaving in this manner?’ ”

Investigation faulted corps

Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fishing Commission, also faulted the corps for its “abysmal record of keeping the water free from spills.”

“If the corps is continually dirtying the river, it creates the perception that things are worse than they are, and that hurts tribal fishermen,” Hudson said.

Perkins said the last thing corps employees want to do is pollute the river. “The people on the ground managing our dams care about the river,” he said. “They’re doing what they can to prevent spills.”

But this week’s notice of violation is the latest skirmish in an ongoing feud between several environmental agencies and the corps. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the corps $116,955 for hazardous waste violations at Bonneville Dam in December, and Washington’s Ecology Department continues to grapple with the corps over jurisdictional issues and public document laws, appealing one case all the way to the secretary of the Army.

After the Jan. 15 oil spill at The Dalles, the corps assembled an independent panel to investigate what went wrong. The panel blamed the spill on inadequately maintained equipment, infrequent inspections and a faulty containment system that allowed the oil to reach the river.

The panel also noted that by underestimating the amount of oil spilled, the corps delayed and hindered the spill response effort.

At least one of the problems that led to the oil spill had been identified 2 1/2 years before the spill occurred, according to government documents. In a June 2001 inspection, the EPA cited dam operators for several problems with the secondary containment system that later failed at The Dalles.

Perkins, the corps spokesman, would not address details raised by the Department of Ecology, saying, “Our lawyers are working on it, and you can be sure that they’ll respond.”

Ben Jacklet
Agency Cites Corps over Columbia Spills
Portland Tribune, May 21, 2004

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