Corps Will Apply for Pollutant
by Steve Ernst
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the first time will manage eight hydroelectric facilities on the Columbia and Snake rivers in accordance with the Clean Water Act, according to a landmark settlement with the environmental watchdog Columbia Riverkeeper.
The deal, announced Aug. 4, means that for the first time the EPA will oversee the discharge of oil and other pollutants at the dams, a policy change that could impact hydroelectric facilities around the country.
Environmental groups heralded the settlement as a great victory for clean water, but one U.S. congressman was claiming the agreement was negotiated "behind closed doors" and feared the agreement could "vastly expand" EPA's authority over dam operations nationwide.
The agreement covers the operations of the Bonneville, John Day, The Dalles, and McNary dams on the Columbia River, and Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite on the Lower Snake River.
Under the terms of the settlement, the Corps shall apply to the U.S. EPA within one year for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to address discharges from the dams, but the amount and type of pollution discharged will be limited to the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The Corps will also have to install the Best Available Technology, as required by the act, to prevent spills.
"This is a huge day for clean water," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "For years, the dams have discharged harmful oil pollution into the Columbia and Snake rivers, and finally that will stop. With the dams coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act, hopefully we will see an end to toxic spills and chronic seepage of pollutants that have been harming our community."
Columbia Riverkeeper filed three complaints in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington in July 2013 that catalogued dozens of spills at the dams dating back decades. The size of the spills range from a few tablespoons of hydraulic fluid discharged from a turbine bay to 1,500 gallons of transformer oil spilled at the Ice Harbor Dam in 2012. The Ice Harbor spill discharged PCBs at levels 14,000,000 percent greater than state and federal water quality standards allow, according to the suit.
This stipulation marks the first time that the EPA will have direct oversight of oil and pollution discharges at hydroelectric facilities, but it isn't the first time the Corps has applied to EPA for discharge permits.
In 2008, the Corps filed an application for 31 unpermitted wastewater discharge points at The Dalles Dam. EPA never issued the required permits, and the Corps continued to spill oil, grease and lubricants into the river, according the suit.
In addition to the dams now falling under the Clean Water Act, the Corps has 18 months to switch to "Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants," described as biodegradable and non-toxic, in the settlement. Within a year the Corps will have completed feasibility on the new lubricants, the settlement says.
The Corps must also prepare, and make public, "Oil Accountability Plans" for the region and each dam. The plans will take an inventory of all the oil and grease used at the dams, before they are removed, and any difference must be accounted for, according to the settlement.
The settlement has implications for dams operating without pollution permits across the country, said Melissa Powers, environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School and an expert in the federal Clean Water Act, in a statement. "Like any industrial facility, dams are prohibited from discharging pollution until they obtain pollution permits."
Doc Hastings, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, blasted the settlement in an Aug. 6 letter, as a "sue-and-settle" agreement that was negotiated "behind closed doors" by the Justice Department without any consultation or input by those most directly impacted."
"Incredibly, I understand that no one other than the U.S. Department of Justice or Army Corps lawyers were made aware of the terms of the sweeping settlement before it was finalized, and signed by a judge," Rep. Hastings wrote in a letter to Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commanding general and chief engineer at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
Hasting requested "an immediate and thorough explanation of the Army Corps' rationale and details of its actions relative to this settlement, not just to Congress, but also to all affected state, local, tribal and other stakeholders, that have an interest in dam operations.
"I am particularly interested in the Army Corps' explanation of the ramifications and potential future impacts of this settlement on ongoing litigation pending by the Columbia Riverkeeper and several other plaintiffs' involving the operations of the Columbia and Snake River system dams and irrigation projects," Hasting wrote.
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