The disturbing spill of artificial turf into the Puyallup River revealed a pattern of lapses by the owners of the Electron Dam. The project to replace the 116-year-old wooden dam in the Mount Rainier foothills must remain halted for now.

County, state and federal agencies should rigorously reevaluate both the project and the credibility of the Bellingham-based companies that own it. 

Tollhouse Energy Company and affiliate Electron Hydro LLC must provide full transparency to justify why they should be allowed to resume work on the dam. Both should face significant penalties for the series of inept decisions that harmed the river, home of the South Sound’s only spring Chinook salmon run.  

The dam operator has botched the project in multiple ways already. Thousands of fish, including endangered Chinook, were killed July 29 because workers improperly diverted a stretch of the river for dam maintenance without the right equipment, a Department of Fish and Wildlife report found. Workers lost time from rescuing fish because they spent 45 minutes to free two colleagues who were mired in waist-deep muck. 

The missteps are pervasive. The dam-replacement project involves a bypass channel, which the operator has mismanaged in design and execution. The design involves putting used FieldTurf under a plastic liner, even though artificial turf is too risky to be put into a river where its crumb rubber, reclaimed from old tires, can break down. 

And that’s exactly what happened the night of July 29. River flow ripped through the liner, washing 617 square yards of turf downstream — enough to cover an NFL end zone and then some — according to a consultant’s report. Most of the plastic grass was pulled out. Crumb rubber washed into the estuary and beyond, to the Sound.

Pierce County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rightly halted work on the dam and must, along with DFW and the Department of Ecology, be rigorous in holding the dam operator to high standards for resuming work. American Rivers, a national environmental nonprofit, recognized the frailty of the Puyallup even before this, suing for species protections in 2016 and naming the river one of America’s most endangered this year. 

Electron Hydro and Tollhouse Energy are within their rights to rebuild the dam, which was purchased from Puget Sound Energy in 2014. But regulators must first require extensive proof future work will be handled more competently.