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.

Riverkeeper discovered the long-term illegal pollution from dams, and filed a lawsuit to hold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its pollution problem. This is about protecting families that rely on fresh, local fish, and others who enjoy the Columbia and Snake Rivers. We are calling on the Corps to come clean. New Deal-era dams must be up to snuff with modern-day protections against oil pollution. 

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.

The Army Corps’ Dirty Secret

Here is what we know:

Oil spills are a chronic problem at government-owned Columbia and Snake River dams, and they threaten clean water for everyone who relies on the Columbia—from tribal fisherman to anglers and others that recreate on local rivers.

How is this possible?

Aging Columbia and Snake River dams use massive quantities of oil to keep their turbines churning out energy for the power grid. According to public records obtained by Riverkeeper, the dams are regularly leaking dirty oil into the Columbia. The highly publicized oil leak from Bonneville Dam in early 2013 joins a laundry list of other reported spills at dams up and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Despite chronic spills and failures, the Corps is not facing any consequence when it sends pollution into the Columbia and Snake Rivers. We think that everyone—including the Corps—must do their part to keep our rivers safe for fishing and swimming.

Case in Point: 2012 Toxic Oil Spill at Ice Harbor Dam

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 Wildlife.

In early 2012, the Corps reported a spill of 1,500 gallons of PCB-laden transformer oil at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. That oil contained PCBs 14,000,000% greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards. Government experts set water quality standards to protect people from cancer and other serious health problems. PCBs are one of the most dangerous pollutants and cause cancer and harm the nervous system, the endocrine system, and reproduction. The government banned the manufacturing of PCBs decades ago.

Despite the health threats from PCBs, the Corps’ dams continue to use PCBs in oil and some equipment. “PCBs are highly toxic and don’t go away,” explains Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Director, Lorri Epstein. “We are very concerned about the impacts of toxic oil pollution on salmon and the families that rely on the Columbia and Snake Rivers for sustenance.”

Learn More

Press Release: Filing Lawsuit Against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Complaints:

District of Oregon

Western District of Washington

Eastern District of Washington