PORTLAND — For the first time in its history, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must disclose the amount of pollutants its dams send into waterways in a groundbreaking legal settlement that could have broad implications for the corps’ hundreds of dams nationwide.
The corps announced in a settlement Monday that it will immediately notify the conservation group that filed the lawsuit of any oil spills among its eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.
The corps also will apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for pollution permits, something it has never done for the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland ends the year-old consolidated lawsuit by the conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, which said the corps violated the Clean Water Act with unmonitored, unpermitted oil discharges from the eight hydroelectric dams.
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No one outside the corps knows how much pollution is flushed into waterways every day. The agency doesn’t have to track it, and before Monday no one with sufficient authority compelled them to do so.
As part of the settlement, the corps admits no wrongdoing but will pay $143,000 in attorney fees. The consolidated cases were dismissed.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director. “There have been several large, high-profile spills in the last decade that made it harder for them to ignore this issue of oil on the river.”
The corps’ Northwest and national offices Monday referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, which negotiated the settlement.
Justice Department attorney Wyn Hornbuckle indicated the agreement applies to the eight dams in question. He did not immediately respond to questions concerning the national impact.
The settlement will allow oversight of the dams by the EPA, a responsibility the agency has sought but never obtained.
The EPA had the authority to regulate the dams’ pollution before the settlement, but it could not compel the corps to file for a pollution permit. The corps also will be forced to switch to a biodegradable lubricant for its dam machinery if an internal study finds it financially feasible.
The corps isn’t just a polluter, however. It also is a regulator of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The act grants the corps the authority to issue permits for discharge of materials excavated from or put into U.S. waterways.
“Under the letter of the law, they have been engaged in unpermitted discharge for years,” said Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. “They should have long ago said, ‘This is how much we’re discharging. Here are the environmental impacts.’ ”
Monday’s settlement will force the corps’ hand. To discharge pollutants into waterways, polluters must obtain permission from state and federal governments. Before, the EPA knew about the unpermitted discharges from dams, but the corps said in letters to state agencies it is not accountable to the EPA.
The corps argued in the same letters that disclosing the mechanical workings of the dams as part of an oil-discharge summary could compromise their security.
The corps doesn’t have to report its day-to-day pollution, but it must report spills. That’s what happened in 2012, when it detected slow leaks of 1,500 gallons of oil from its Ice Harbor dam into the Snake River near Pasco. The spill included toxic PCBs, an industrial insulator shown to be harmful to humans.
In July 2013, Columbia Riverkeeper sued and demanded to know what and how much the corps was sending into the water.
“When you’re not regulated under a permit, you don’t have to say what the impact (of pollution) on water was,” Powers said.
Nationally, the settlement could force all unpermitted dams to obtain discharge permits from the EPA.
The eight dams affected by the settlement are the Bonneville, the John Day, The Dalles and McNary between Washington and Oregon, and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington.
The eight dams use turbines that have shafts and hubs filled with oil or other lubricants. The oil leaks to the surface, along with oil from drainage sumps, transformers and wickets that control water flow.
Environmentalists will closely watch the type of permit issued by the EPA, Powers said. A “site-specific” permit likely would include limits that the corps would have to meet on the amount of oil discharged.
If the EPA instead issues a general permit, environmentalists would be less sanguine about its prospects, Powers said. General permits are less effective in compelling change because they don’t contain specific metrics that must be met, she said.