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Oil Spill Reaches Oregon's Bonneville Dam

by Associated Press
The Daily News of Longview Washington, January 17, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Oil containing a cancer-causing compound spilled from the transformer of a major dam into the Columbia River, killing fish and leaving a rainbow-hued streak 23 miles long.

Officials were still uncertain Saturday how much oil had leaked from a frost-damaged transformer, but had set up a command center at The Dalles dam staffed by 50 local and state officials.

Four cleanup crews were on the water Saturday with containment booms and oil skimmers, while helicopters surveyed for dead wildlife. So far, officials have found 185 dead shad near the source of the discharge.

Environmentalists are calling for an investigation, claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did too little after the spill was first noticed on Thursday, while understating the amount of oil that leaked.

"They're trying to make it look like a little spill, when in fact they didn't know how big it was," said Brent Foster, attorney for the group Columbia Riverkeeper.

The estimated size of the spill has varied widely.

In its initial statement, the Army Corps of Engineers said roughly 75 gallons were released into the river. But by Saturday, Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the figure is closer to 1,000 gallons.

Matt Rabe, spokesman for the Corps, said the agency must drain the malfunctioning transformer to see how much oil is left in the drum, and only then will officials be able to estimate the size of the spill.

Adding to the environmental damage, the broken transformer is one of the last on the Columbia to use oil which contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Oil containing PCBs was banned in 1978 after it was determined that they are cancer-causing, said MacIntyre. But getting the toxic oil out of the machinery is an intricate process, he said. The oil is specific to a particular transformer, meaning that the entire machinery needs to be overhauled before a new lubricant can be introduced.

Transformers dating to the era before the ban can still use the tainted oil -- as is the case with the machinery grandfathered into the Columbia River dam.

"It's one of the last transformers in our inventory to use that," said Rabe.

And within one day of the spill, the translucent sheen had traveled 23 miles downstream to the Hood River Bridge; by Saturday, diluted patches of oil had reached the Bonneville Dam, more than 40 miles downriver.

The Corps stressed the toxic content in the oil is low -- on the order of eight parts per million, a level the Environmental Protection Agency considers non-hazardous, he said.

But environmentalists say the spill is particularly worrisome because the river is already polluted with PCBs.

In 2001, a three-year study by the National Marine Fisheries Service found alarming levels of PCBs in Columbia River salmon from previous chemical spills. It also showed that bald eagles nesting along a 60-mile stretch of the river were producing half as many young as other eagles in Washington and Oregon.

"It's adding to the toxic load of the river," said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for the Portland Audubon Society.

In a scathing press release, the Audubon Society and Columbia Riverkeeper said the Corps had "intentionally minimized the significance of this spill."

They pointed to the fact that authorities dispatched cleanup crews more than a day after the leak was discovered -- and then only in limited numbers. Two days went by before surveys began for injured wildlife downstream, the groups said.

While the only visible impact on wildlife so far is the dead fish, Sallinger said it could take several days for oil to penetrate the feathers of water fowl. That could deprive the birds of insulation against the cold and kill them, he said.

Associated Press
Oil Leaks from Dam into Columbia; Impact Unclear
The Daily News, January 17, 2004

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