The Columbia and Snake River federal network of dams, and the abundance of low cost electricity it produces, has long been the cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest manufacturing economy. It has also supported another industry—the legions of lawyers fighting over the environmental effects. The latest iteration is an attack brought by Columbia Riverkeepers against the Army Corps of Engineers for oily discharges from the dams.
Riverkeepers filed lawsuits in U. S. District Courts in both Oregon and Washington alleging that oils released from the dams are discharges of pollutants for which a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The oils are used for lubricating turbine equipment, which Riverkeepers allege are released every day through spillways and penstocks at Bonneville, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor and other federal dams. The suits seek declaratory and injunctive relief, mandating that the Corps secure NPDES permits.
Oily discharges are common among hydroelectric facilities. For the most part these are minor releases, though the complaint does allege a spill of 1,500 gallons of transformer oil containing PCBs from the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake. Most privately owned dams in the region operate under general permits encompassing the small-volume releases. A few have NPDES permits.
As I have noted in prior blogs, courts have held that dams are “nonpoint” sources of pollution, which do not require a NPDES permit. These holdings were in the context of dams merely passing through pollution flowing into reservoirs from upstream sources, as opposed to adding pollutants. However, there have been cases where the discharge below the dam was not simply a pass through, and the court found a permit was required.
In relation to the ongoing litigation over the dams’ effect on salmon spawning, rearing and, migration, the Riverkeepers case will not likely have a significant effect on Corps operations. Even if the suit is successful, oily discharges can be managed, if not wholly eliminated. These cases should settle.