Cleaning Up Toxic Oil Pollution from Dams

Oil & Salmon Don’t Mix

No one wants to swim through oil sheens. Or eat a freshly caught salmon dripping with toxic oil. Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the federal agency that operates the majority of the Columbia and Snake River dams—violates the law routinely and discharges oil pollution to the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This is where we come in. In August 2014, Columbia Riverkeeper and partners celebrated a major victory in a year long effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean-up their act on eight major dams in the Pacific Northwest. In a legal settlement with Riverkeeper, the Army Corps agreed to address the oil pollution seeping from dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This victory was lauded by fishermen who like clean water and Clean Water Act experts who appreciate the lawsuit’s significance.

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“This is a huge day for clean water,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s Executive Director. “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 Army Corps’ Dirty Secret

An aerial view of oil sheens on the Columbia River following a 2004 oil spill at The Dalles Dam. Photo Credit: Andy Carlson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

An aerial view of oil sheens on the Columbia River following a 2004 oil spill at The Dalles Dam. Photo Credit: Andy Carlson, Washington Department of Fish and WildlifeAn aerial view of oil sheens on the Columbia River following a 2004 oil spill at The Dalles Dam. Photo Credit: Andy Carlson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This decision comes a year after Columbia Riverkeeper first sued to end this unchecked pollution. The original suit described dozens of oil spills and chronic oil leaks at the dams. For example, in 2012, the Army Corps reported discharging over 1,500 gallons of PCB-laden transformer oil at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. According to the EPA, PCBs cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system. The oil from the Ice Harbor spill contained PCBs at levels 14,000,000% greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards.

 

What’s next? Highlights of the new settlement include:

  • EPA oversight: Within one year, the Army Corps must apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Clean Water Act permits for eight of the largest dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Currently, there is little to no oversight.
  • Pollution limits: The Clean Water Act permits will limit the amount of oil and toxic pollution discharged by the dams.
  • Pollution monitoring: For the first time the Army Corps must monitor the type and quantity of pollution being discharged into the largest rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Environmentally friendly oil: The Army Corps must complete an assessment of whether it is feasible to switch from using toxic petroleum products as lubricants in dams to using vegetable oil or other biodegradable oils. If it is feasible, the Army Corps must switch.

Upholding Clean Water Laws

Photo Courtesy of Carl Zitsman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo Courtesy of Carl Zitsman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Columbia and Snake Rivers are public resources. And polluters steal our basic right to a river that is safe for swimming and fishing. The Clean Water Act empowers every citizen to protect our collective right to clean, safe rivers. Riverkeeper is using this powerful tool to hold the Corps accountable for spilling oil into the iconic Columbia and Snake Rivers.

 

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Columbia Riverkeeper’s Complaints: