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Economic and dam related articles

Washington State Warns Corps
on Columbia/Snake Oil Spills

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 21, 2004

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spilled oil 33 times since 1999 at nine of its Columbia and Snake river dams, prompting the Washington Department of Ecology this week to issue a warning to the federal agency.

Another warning from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) may follow within a month.

The Corps spilled the oil between 1999 and 2004 from its turbines, lubricating and hydraulic systems, and transformers at Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, Chief Joseph, McNary, Lower Monumental, Ice Harbor, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, Ecology said. All the equipment that operates the locks and gates at the dams are hydraulically operated using oil, and transformers are packed in oil for cooling.

The notice of violation said that the spills "pose a substantial risk to pollute the rivers because of the Corps' inability to detect leaks, drains from secondary containments that lead directly to the river, and staffing levels that at times limit the ability of operators to be vigilant in detecting oil leaks."

"We believe that if the Corps had a spill tomorrow, they wouldn't handle it effectively," said Mary-Ellen Voss, an Ecology spokesperson. She added that the Corps over the past four years has downplayed and under reported toxic spills at its dams. "The notice points out that they are lacking in preparation, preparedness and response. However, over the last few weeks, the Corps has shown a willingness to address our concerns."

Ecology's notice said that the Corps had violated state oil spill and clean-water laws. In addition, it said there is a potential for further spills and it cited the Corps' staff for being insufficiently trained and prepared to respond to them. Finally, Ecology said it is concerned that spill response equipment, such as that deployed at The Dalles Dam by NRC Environmental, is inadequately ready and that how the Corps accounts for the quantity of oil stored at the dams.

The notice, which was sent to the Corps' Northwestern Division commander Brigadier General William T. Grisoli, gives the Corps 30 days to respond with a report to Ecology.

"My expectation is that your response to this notice will form the foundation for our efforts to work together to improve the prevention of and response to oil pollution from the Corps' hydropower projects on our waters," wrote Dale Jensen in the notice's cover letter. He is Ecology's Manager of the Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program at Ecology.

The largest of the 33 violations was a 3,000-gallon spill at Chief Joseph Dam, Voss said. But, the most recent of the large violations was at The Dalles Dam in January when 1,300 gallons of mineral oil leaked. According to Ecology information, NRC Environmental, which the Corps hired to clean up the spill, recovered more than 600 gallons of oil from within the dam and deployed about 4,000 feet of boom in sensitive areas downstream of the dam to capture the remaining oil. The oil, which had leaked from a transformer upstream of the dam, contained non-hazardous levels of PCB. While the oil apparently had no adverse impact on birds or other wildlife, Ecology reported that 185 juvenile and one adult shad were found dead.

For that spill, the Corps convened an independent panel of three experts that looked at the cause of the spill and made recommendations aimed to prevent future spills. However, four more, but smaller, spills since then "highlighted the fact that there has not been significant improvement to the Corps' spill prevention or response capability," Jensen wrote in the letter. Although Ecology offered to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Corps to jointly address spill problems at dams, the Corps refused the invitation in December 2003 due to legal issues.

"We're working with the state and working to resolve these issues," said Homer Perkins of the Corps' Northwestern Division Office. "The notice is formalizing this work for their side and now they need a formal response from us."

The Oregon DEQ may also send a notice to the Corps within a month, said Chuck Donaldson, DEQ's Emergency Response Manager.

"Oregon shares Washington's concerns about the Corps' operations on the Columbia, and we have additional concerns about Corps dams located in Oregon," Donaldson said. "Like Washington, Oregon may have to examine other methods to ensure compliance with state and federal laws."

DEQ had responded to The Dalles spill as one of the agencies in a "unified command in response to any spill on the river," Donaldson said. However, an invoice for the cost of that cleanup response from DEQ to the Corps was refused payment. "It appears that the Corps believes we don't have that authority and so cannot recover the costs. That puts us in a bind when responding to oil spilled and running down the river."

He hopes to come to an understanding with the Corps on its legal responsibilities in working with others in the region. For now, he said DEQ is working closely with the Oregon Attorney General and the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, a policy body that oversees DEQ, to determine how to proceed. He expects Oregon could deliver a notice to the Corps in a month regarding oil spills at dams.

Related Sites:
Washington Department of Ecology:
Ecology's Spills Program:
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:

CBB Staff
Washington State Warns Corps on Columbia/Snake Oil Spills
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 21, 2004

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