Nearly 40 criminal charges have been filed against Electron Hydro and its chief operating officer, Thom Fischer, by Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson in connection with a spill of crumb rubber into the Puyallup River by the company during a construction project in summer 2020.
The 36 gross misdemeanor charges were filed Monday in Pierce County Superior Court. The charges include violations of the state’s Water Pollution Control Act, the Shoreline Management Act and Pierce County Code.
If convicted, Fischer faces a maximum penalty of 90 or 364 days in jail for each count, depending on the charge, and fines of up to $1,000 to $10,000 for each count, depending on the charge. Electron Hydro as a business entity faces a maximum penalty of $250,000 for each of the 36 counts.
The charges stem from a construction project by Electron Hydro to update its more than 100-year-old hydroelectric dam on the Puyallup River. The company without authorization used old artificial FieldTurf discarded at a nearby rock quarry as an underlining for a plastic liner being placed beneath a temporary bypass channel for the river.
In a press release Tuesday, the company stated it at no time intended to harm the river.
“The Company has been working cooperatively with state and federal authorities since the incident. As the company previously advised the Attorney General and community stakeholders, at no time did the company intend to adversely impact the Puyallup River or its aquatic inhabitants in connection with the construction work the company was authorized by local, state and federal officials to pursue,” the press release stated.
“The company is in the process of reviewing the materials filed by the Attorney General’s Office of which the company was afforded no prior notice.”
About 2,400 square yards of the plastic turf containing 16 to 18 cubic yards of crumb rubber were used in the project without permission. The river promptly tore up the liner and turf, sending hunks of the turf and crumb rubber into the river.
Testing by the University of Washington-Tacoma Center for Urban Waters revealed samples of the recovered turf and crumb rubber contained chemicals found in tires, including one that is “extremely toxic” to coho salmon, according to the court filing.
The dam is approximately 23 miles southeast of Tacoma in Pierce County. The Puyallup River it dams is home to Chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead and bull trout.
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has treaty rights to fish in the river but was never consulted when the dam was built in about 1904.
Electron Hydro purchased the dam from Puget Sound Energy in 2014. Fischer has been the chief operating officer for Electron Hydro LLC since that time.
The spill sent approximately 617 square yards of FieldTurf and 4 to 6 cubic yards of crumb rubber into the river. All of the samples of the spilled crumb rubber tested contained 6PPD-Quinone, a chemical compound present in tires that is water soluble and one of the most toxic substances known to fish, according to the court filing.
The crumb rubber polluted the river as soon as it was spilled, according to associate professor Edward Kolodziej, who performed the tests, according to the filing.
The spill has led to a slew of other woes for the dam and its operators. Multiple public officials including Puyallup tribal government leaders have called for removal of the dam. The tribal council issued a statement Monday calling for consequences for polluting the river:
“We appreciate the extensive investigation by the attorney general’s office. The discharge of turf into the river at Electron Dam caused grave environmental harm. Salmon and other wildlife have already paid the price. Now it is time for those responsible to face the consequences.”
The dam’s owners have stated they will oppose any effort to remove the dam, which previously provided electricity to about 20,000 customers. Fischer could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Puget Sound Energy canceled its power purchase contract with the dam’s owners because of violations of environmental laws and permits. PSE has not taken power from the dam since July 2020.
The tribe brought a civil suit in December 2020 in U.S. District Court for Western Washington against dam owners and operators, alleging ongoing violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Other cases have been brought against the dam’s owners, including one by the nonprofits American Rivers, American Whitewater and other environmental groups, and a suit by the U.S. Justice Department, for violations of the Clean Water Act.