In Major Settlement, Dam Pollutants Will Be Disclosed By Army Corps For First Time

The Little Goose Dam, seen here in an undated photo, along the Snake River in southeast Washington is one of the dams the U.S. Army Corps will now report toxic oil and lube discharges from. CREDIT: AP/US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
The Little Goose Dam, seen here in an undated photo, along the Snake River in southeast Washington is one of the dams the U.S. Army Corps will now report toxic oil and lube discharges from. CREDIT: AP/US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS

A groundbreaking settlement on Monday between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a group dedicated to protecting rivers in the Pacific Northwest could have nationwide implications for thousands of dams managed by the federal government. According to the settlement with Columbia Riverkeeper, for the first time in its history the Corps will have to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams are sending down waterways and will soon have to request Clean Water Act permits for eight of the largest dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

“This is a huge day for clean water,” Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s Executive Director, said in a statement. “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.”

The Corps will be required to use the best available technology to control oil and toxic pollution discharged by the dams, which are hydropower facilities operating large turbines. The Corps will also switch from using petroleum lubricants to vegetable and other biodegradable oils as is deemed feasible.

“This development is potentially huge,” Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at the Vermont School of Law who’s been working on dam regulation under the Clean Water Act for over 30 years, told ThinkProgress. “The Corps is finally for the first time going to have to legally admit that they have to apply for permits.”

The oil and lube discharged from the dams’ turbines, gates, and other operating equipment is different from the stuff that’s already in the water and just passes through the dams. While the settlement only impacts eight dams in the Pacific Northwest, Parenteau said this type of agreement doesn’t get reached without the Department of Justice consulting with all the agencies involved in the decision. He said this while it doesn’t mean all federal dams in the U.S. will apply for permits, it does mean that “environmental groups around the country will be inclined to start asking questions.”

While potentially destructive to local environments, hydroelectric dams provide a low-carbon source of baseload energy. While this settlement likely won’t lead to the closing of any power-producing dams, it is part of the broader debate around the pros and cons of hydropower facilities.

“This is one of those double-edged swords,” said Parenteau. “You want hydropower dams to behave but you don’t want them to shut down and get replaced by coal or gas either. In my opinion you want to go just far enough to regulate the negative aspects but not so far that you shut any of them down.”

Right now no one knows how much pollution the Corps is flushing into waterways and the agency is not required to track such figures. The Corps will now be required to report these numbers after the year-old Columbia Riverkeeper lawsuit was settled through the U.S. District Court in Portland. As part of the settlement the Corps admitted no wrongdoing but will pay $143,000 in attorneys’ fees.

The suit describes a number of spills and chronic leaks at the dams in question. For example in 2012 the Corps reported discharging over 1,500 gallons of Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB)-laden transformer oil at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. PCBs cause cancer as well as a variety of other adverse health effects.

“We don’t know everything the Corps have been doing and the impact any of it is having because we don’t have that access,” Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clarke Law School in Portland, told ThinkProgress. “This settlement will ultimately allow us to learn what the Corps has been doing and how it will have to improve its facilities to ensure it doesn’t discharge significant quantities of oil.”

Powers said that the Corps has refused to get permits for years for certain discharges which seemed to be quite significant.

“Ideally they will start getting more permits for other facilities around the country,” said Powers. “If they don’t do it on their own I would suspect that this settlement would open the way for other concerned parties to get involved.”

The eight dams affected by the settlement are the Bonneville, the John Day, The Dalles and McNary in Oregon, and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington state.