the film
Commentaries and editorials

Oil Spill has Corps Under Fire

by Ben Jacklet
Portland Tribune, January 27, 2004

Agency disagrees with critics who say
Corps downplayed impact and was slow to respond

The Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is assembling an independent review panel to investigate the cause of a Jan. 15 oil spill at The Dalles Dam that released at least 1,300 gallons of mineral oil containing PCBs into the Columbia River about two weeks ago.

Environmental and tribal fishing groups have sharply criticized the Corps for neglecting to inform people about the spill, downplaying its size, and responding sluggishly to the emergency.

Corps spokesman Matt Rabe disputed the charge that the Corps deliberately downplayed the spill.

"We have nothing to hide here," he said. "We made a mistake. We owned up to our mistake. Now we want to know what went wrong and how we can do better."

State and federal agencies continue to investigate the exact cause and impact of the spill and are considering fines. Environmentalists say they are concerned about cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the oil, and at least one watchdog group is considering a lawsuit against the Corps.

On the day of the spill, 186 fish were found dead near the dam. The cause of death has not yet been determined, but a pending toxicology report may provide answers. Biologists have not found any dead birds covered in oil on the river.

Corps officials said employees -discovered oil in the river at-8 a.m., and reported to the National Response Center at 9:40 a.m. that 75 gallons had spilled.

When investigators from the Washington Department of Ecology flew over the river Jan. 16, however, they discovered a slick extending more than 20 miles downstream, to Bonneville Dam.

The Corps later increased its estimate to 1,300 gallons after examining maintenance records to determine how much oil was unaccounted for.

Several critics said they believed the Corps deliberately minimized the significance of the spill to avoid liability.

"This is an agency that has a history of underreporting, followed by denial, followed by cover-up," said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. He said the spill, the latest of dozens associated with the Corps' operation of Columbia River dams in recent years, reflected a pattern of bad stewardship.

The Corps has long grappled with environmental regulators over its environmental practices at Columbia River dams. The Washington Department of Ecology has issued several warning letters about dam operations, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Corps $116,955 in December for hazardous waste violations at Bonneville Dam.

A frozen pipe
According to Rabe, the stretch of extremely cold weather at The Dalles during early January caused a water-cooling pipe to freeze in one of the dam's transformers. This allowed oil to seep into the pipe and leak into a secondary containment structure, which then failed, allowing the oil to leak into the river.

Transformers in Columbia River dams historically have used oil containing PCBs as part of the cooling process -- a practice largely phased out since 1978 when environmental law forbade using PCBs in new transformers. However, old transformers like the one that leaked oil at The Dalles were grandfathered in under the law.

Rabe said he didn't know what caused the failure. "That's one of the things the panel will be looking at," he said.

The concentration of PCBs in the oil that spilled was measured at 8 parts per million. "That's a very small amount," said Mike Watson, a toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency. "This is not a hazard to people."

But any amount of oil and PCBs in a river can be damaging over time, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology. "PCBs persist in the environment, accumulate in tissues and are toxic."

Greg deBruler of Columbia Riverkeeper said there is a major sturgeon spawning area just downstream from where the spill occurred, and PCBs from historical sources have been found in fish caught in the river. "This stuff accumulates over time. We don't need more PCBs in the river."

Environmentalists and tribal representatives criticized the Corps for moving slowly to set up oil booms downstream of the spill and surveying birds and wildlife for damage. Brent Foster, an attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, said the group is considering suing over the oil spill.

NRC Environmental, the contracting company hired by the Corps to lead the cleanup, is located in Portland. Because of the distance of the drive and the delay in notification, cleanup crews with oil booms did not arrive in The Dalles until more than six hours after the spill occurred.

"It didn't take me long to figure out that their numbers were bogus," said river watchdog deBruler, who toured the river by boat the day after the spill. "There were hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons out there. Everywhere we went, we found oil."

A similar accident occurred on the river in 2002, when 1,200 gallons of mineral oil spilled from a dam operated by Chelan Public Utility District. The PUD was fined $10,000 and agreed to perform $25,000 in restoration work.

Investigations beginning
Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, a coalition with fishing rights to the river, said the Corps did a poor job of informing tribal fishermen of the spill.

"We're the ones who are going to be impacted the most and we weren't notified," Hudson said. "Their notification list seems very small and incomplete."

Officials from the Corps met with the tribes last week to discuss how to improve communications, Rabe said.

The investigation by state and federal agencies into the causes of the spill and its impacts is continuing, according to Redfield-Wilder, the Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

"The agency will continue this and other investigations and will continue to evaluate enforcement and damage assessment options," she said. "Ultimately, the hope is for cooperation from both the Corps and (the Environmental Protection Agency) to prevent these spills in the first place."

Environmental agencies also are looking into the spill prevention programs for the dams the Corps operates. The Washington Department of Ecology has a standing request for a copy of a 2001 environmental audit of Bonneville Dam, requested under the Freedom of Information Act, but the Corps has refused to release the document.

Rabe said the environmental audits are not public documents, but the report probing the recent spill will be. He stressed that the panel would be made up of independent experts who do not work for the Corps.

"We want an unvarnished, critical look at our operations," Rabe said.

The panel members should be selected by Feb. 1, and they will be asked to put together a report shortly thereafter, Rabe said.

Ben Jacklet
Oil Spill has Corps Under Fire
Portland Tribune, January 27, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation