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Oil-Leaking Dams Generate Concern

by Michael Milstein
The Oregonian, May 4, 2003

The 200-foot sheen on the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam led Washington state regulators into a hidden world: the dam itself. The rainbow-colored slick tracked into the half-mile-long hydroelectric structure, jammed with whirring turbines, unknown pits and pumps that demand 160,000 gallons of heavy oil to operate.

The dam was leaking oil directly into the river.

Bonneville, it turns out, is joined by other decades-old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in spilling or leaking untold volumes of oil -- in some instances, but a trickle; in another, roughly 1,000 gallons.

The Bonneville case was a year and a half ago. Oregon and Washington authorities have since issued the Corps of Engineers four violation notices for illegally spilling oil into the river at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams. Corps managers have taken some corrective action and plan to review oil containment at their dams across the Northwest.

But the corps has snubbed its neighbor states, telling them they have no authority over what goes on inside federal dams and guarding information about a dam's inner workings in the name of protection against terrorist plots. State officials, tracking river compliance under the federal Clean Water Act as well as fish habitat quality, are left to file Freedom of Information Act requests -- much as any frustrated citizen would do.

"The Corps is not required to follow state regulatory controls over the operation of generators, turbines, galleries, sumps and pumping operations within our federal facilities," Brig. Gen. David A. Fastabend, then the corps' Northwest division engineer, wrote to the head of Washington's Department of Ecology on March 31.

Meanwhile, the dams go on leaking.

"Unfortunately, they're dealing with dinosaurs of the past," said Chris Kaufman, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on-scene environmental coordinator.

As a federal agency, the corps is immune from fines that might otherwise reach many thousands of dollars. But it must comply with federal Endangered Species Act protections for migrating salmon.

While oil can be toxic to fish and wildlife, spills at the dams are quickly diluted by the river's massive flows, and no damage has been apparent or cited. But "even a small amount of oil escaping over a long time adds up to a lot of oil," Kaufman said.

No permits for decades It's unclear how much oil has already ended up in the river system. The Corps of Engineers contends it has no obligation to report oil spills within its dams, yet it has operated ineffective oil disposal systems without permits for decades, state officials say.

"There's no question, had this been a private industry, there would have been significant financial penalties issued for these spills, and the penalties would be continuing," said Ron Holcomb, a Washington Department of Ecology spill responder.

The corps counters that it has reported all oil known to have reached the river. The 17 spills reported at Bonneville Dam since 1997 reflect a "pretty good record," spokesman Matt Rabe said, because it means spills occurred on fewer than 1 percent of the days during that period.

Oil spills "look a lot worse than they are because oil's lightweight and spreads on the water," he said. "Sometimes the best course of action is just to allow it to dissipate."

Washington environment officials are the most frustrated. Corps officials refuse to disclose to them Bonneville's layout of sumps, generators and turbines that may contain oil because "these facilities have been identified as terrorist targets," Fastabend wrote. Moreover, he cited national security as a reason "we are unable to allow your Department to assert regulatory controls over the internal operation of our facilities."

But state officials did uncover an e-mail revealing workers at Bonneville as recently as 2001 had illegally employed oil dispersants, soap-like compounds that mask escaping oil by breaking it up so it's invisible to people but potentially more threatening to fish. The corps has used dispersants in "isolated instances," Rabe said, but they are no longer allowed.

The problem goes upstream into the Snake River in Eastern Washington. There, 750 gallons of turbine oil spilled from the corps' Lower Monumental Dam and into fish ladders during last summer's salmon migration, a corps report filed with the state of Washington shows. Workers had pumped what they thought was water from a full collection pit into the river for two days because they lacked procedures to decipher it as oil.

More than 35 spills recorded In the past five years, the U.S. Coast Guard logged more than 35 spills of as little as a few ounces and as much as 1,000 gallons of oil, along with some of "unknown quantities," from Corps of Engineers dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"These dams have been operating for decades, and they really haven't received much scrutiny," said Washington's Holcomb. "We feel like we've just scratched the surface."

The dams are energy manufacturing plants built without modern pollution controls. About 160,000 gallons of turbine oil is in use inside Bonneville Dam at one time. John Day and The Dalles dams use about 190,000 gallons each.

The corps only recently began installing oil-water separators, chambers that trap oil draining from machinery. Only Bonneville Dam has separators now, but they are so poorly designed, state officials said, that they do not work.

The problem became apparent Jan. 3 of last year. The corps told Washington officials that Bonneville Dam's Powerhouse II near the Washington shore had spilled 10 gallons of oil into the Columbia River.

The oil had escaped from a sump that collects oil and water drained from turbines during maintenance. Between 300 and 500 gallons of oil had spilled into the sump three months earlier, the corps later revealed, but workers did not check the hard-to-reach sump for oil, so they did not notice it. Automatic pumps that activate when the sump fills poured some of the contents straight into the Columbia.

Corps officials told state inspectors Jan. 3 that they would transfer oil left in the sump into sealed drums, reports say. But the next day they instead pumped about 8,000 gallons of oil and water into another sump and, from there, into an oil-water separator that discharges into the Columbia.

"Questionable" system cited The action violated state laws and, a corps environmental compliance specialist later wrote in a memo to supervisors, "should never have been considered."

"It is my opinion that several serious violations of the Clean Water Act occurred at Bonneville Lock and Dam on 4 January 2002," the memo states.

The memo, obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Ethics and the Washington Department of Ecology, says the separator operates without a permit and "has questionable oil-water separation capability," as revealed in a corps audit of Bonneville Dam operations five years earlier. The corps has requests from the Washington DOE and The Oregonian, however, to release the audit and another conducted in 2001.

Like kitchen fat separators, industrial separators must be opened and accumulated oil siphoned off before they fill. State inspectors discovered that workers had never removed oil from the Bonneville separator since it was installed more than 20 years earlier. Over such long periods, they say, oil can sink into the water and flow out of the chamber.

"Oil collected in the improperly operated and maintained oil/water separator has posed and continues to pose a substantial threat to pollute waters of the state of Washington," the state wrote in a violation notice issued to the corps a year ago.

Washington officials measured up to 35,000 gallons of oil in the separator in early 2002 and told the corps to clean it out. The corps removed about 2,000 gallons of oil and contends the state measurement was mistaken. Corps officials have not cleaned oil sludge settled on the bottom of the separator, as state officials have repeatedly ordered.

Rabe, the corps spokesman, said there is no evidence oil ever escaped from the separator because no oil sheens have been sighted in the river below it.

But the separator dumps into roiling water below the dam that would make oil almost impossible to see, state officials said.

Records show oil has also escaped from other corps dams without notice.

In June 1999, workers at McNary Dam realized an unknown amount of oil had leaked into the river only after they found a turbine low on oil.

A second separator in Bonneville's other powerhouse, on the Oregon side of the dam, releases oil almost constantly into calm water, where sheens are easily visible. Any sheen violates state water quality laws. Still, state officials found that the corps did not report escapes of oil as the law requires.

"Failing to report these illegal oil discharges constitute violations of the federal Clean Water Act and state law," the Washington Department of Ecology told the corps in a violation notice.

Some improvement seen The corps has improved the Oregon separator, sectioning it to more effectively collect oil. But it remains too small for water and oil to fully separate.

"Water is moving so fast it's just an oil-water swirl, so that's what comes out," said Kaufman, of the Oregon DEQ. "They've got a long way to go in managing their oil."

Other Columbia River dams also hold sumps to collect interior oil and water but lack separators to remove oil from water returning to the river. The corps expects to install a nearly $500,000 network of filters and sensors at The Dalles and a more basic system at John Day by the end of the summer, and it will seek funding from the Bonneville Power Administration for oil controls at other dams that need them.

Engineers must work around the millions of tons of concrete that encase dam plumbing. "Trying to replumb a powerhouse is challenging at best," said Bob van der Borg, who heads the team surveying the dams.

The corps has agreed to obtain a permit for its separator on the Oregon side of Bonneville Dam because it's constantly leaking oil. But it has so far refused state demands to get a permit for discharges at John Day Dam, even after the Oregon DEQ issued a violation notice for ongoing oil releases there.

A permit would require installation of the best available technology to control spills.

"It's the right thing to do," said Dick Nichols, water quality manager for the DEQ's eastern region. "Everyone else has to have it. It seems only fair that they should, too."

Related Pages:
Dams Run by Army Engineers Leak Oil Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5/6/3

Michael Milstein
Oil-Leaking Dams Generate Concern
The Oregonian, May 4, 2003

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