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Corps of Engineers Faces Fine for Spills

by Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, May 18, 2004

Frustrated by about 30 oil spills at nine hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the past several years, the state Department of Ecology on Monday notified the Army Corps of Engineers it's facing a potential fine.

The state's formal "notice of violation" charged that the federal agency that operates the dams has repeatedly violated clean water laws and hasn't taken adequate measures to prevent or handle the oil spills.

"If the Corps had a spill tomorrow, they don't have the training or the equipment necessary to take care of it," said Ecology Department spokeswoman Mary-Ellen Voss in Olympia.

Voss said a number of issues have been raised since a 2,500-gallon oil spill Jan. 15 at The Dalles Dam.

A cleanup crew could not respond before the spill was washed downstream, and fisheries agencies and Native American tribes complained they were not notified quickly.

"Our issues with them are about their operation, their maintenance practices and skilled response capabilities," Voss said. "They are lacking all those areas."

After the January spill, an independent panel consisting of two U.S. Bureau of Reclamation employees and one Bonneville Power Administration employee was named to make recommendations on how to avoid future spills and how the agency could respond better.

But Voss said while the Corps has been planning how to improve, it is not doing enough.

"Although we are pleased that the Corps has responded to some of our concerns ... I think it is important that this formal process is addressed so that these issues go clear up to the top level," she said.

The Corps has 30 days to respond to the notice of violation. The state's next step, if it's not satisfied with the Corps' response, is to issue a formal notice of failure to comply or a fine.

Voss said it is possible the Corps won't respond because in the past it has claimed the state doesn't have jurisdiction over it because it's a federal agency.

"They are acting cooperatively at this point, but that is a long time in coming," she said.

Corps officials said they are trying to improve.

"We've been working on this thing with the state for quite awhile and will continue to do that," said Corps spokesman Homer Perkins in Portland. "I think they just needed to formalize the process."

The Corps has hired an independent company familiar with dam operations to review its operations and management of oil spills. That review is not yet completed, Perkins said.

The spills generally have come from faulty seals on the aging turbines at the dams. Herald files show reports of spills at The Dalles Dam dating back at least until 1997, and a 1,000-gallon spill was reported at Ice Harbor Dam in June 2000.

However, officials have said many small spills until recent years were simply not reported.

Tribal officials said Monday that they agree the Corps has made some progress, but they believe more action is needed.

"We have been deeply disappointed with the ongoing spill problems at the Corps dams on the Columbia and Snake," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. "I think it is appropriate for the state of Washington to bring about better practices at federal dams on the Columbia."

Hudson said the Corps promised after the January spill to develop a public alert system to quickly and efficiently notify affected groups of any oil spills. Four months later, that process has not been started in earnest, he said.

"If there is oil in the river, our people need to know that," he said, noting that Native Americans rely on fish and need to be aware of possible contamination.

Although there has been no formal communication plan set in place, Hudson said the Corps has improved in giving notice of spills. "They had a 4-ounce spill recently, and they notified us," he said.

Perkins said the Corps is committed to keeping the water rushing past the dams clean. "I think we and the states agree that the river is a really important resource to protect, and we are doing the best we can to do that," he said.

Anna King
Corps of Engineers Faces Fine for Spills
Tri-City Herald, May 18, 2004

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