The Justice Department has filed a civil suit against the owners of the Electron Hydroelectric Project for violating the Clean Water Act by polluting the Puyallup River.
The suit was filed against Electron Hydro, LLC, Wednesday at the request of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. District Court for the Western District.
At issue is a spill in the Puyallup River caused when Electron Hydro last July without authorization used old field turf from a nearby dump as an underlayment for a plastic liner placed in a channel. As part of a construction project, the river was diverted into that channel.
The river quickly tore off pieces of the turf, spewing at least 600 square yards into the river, according to the suit. The material consisted of a plastic “grass” yarn and loose granular infill material composed of silica sand and crumb rubber. About six cubic yards was set loose in the river, according to the suit.
Hunks of plastic liner and waste field turf material were found all over the Puyallup River, including at least 5,000 feet downstream of the construction site. The crumb rubber rapidly and widely dispersed into the river and has traveled at least 19 miles downstream, according to the suit.
The Puyallup flows to Commencement Bay and Puget Sound.
The state Department of Ecology in its own inspections of the spill, according to the suit, also found Electron Hydro had disturbed more than 4.5 acres than was authorized under its state construction storm water permit, did not stabilize exposed soils and did not provide the required containment for equipment containing fuel to prevent spills.
The Clean Water Act violations continued from July 20, the day the company first placed the turf in the river without a permit, using a crane to do so, until the company removed what turf remained on Oct. 28, according to the suit.
Field turf can break down in water and potentially discharge toxins and other pollutants.
The department is seeking a fine of $55,800 per day for each violation of the Clean Water Act occurring under various sections and other violations, a penalty that conservatively could top $10 million, estimated Lisa Anderson, environmental attorney for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
The department also demands in its suit that Electron Hydro remove all remaining fill and pollutants from its spill.
The dam is located in the upper Puyallup watershed and formerly generated power for about 20,000 electricity customers. However, Puget Sound Energy, which purchased the power from the dam, has canceled its power purchase contract with Electron Hydro as of Nov. 3, Janet Kim, a spokesperson for the company, confirmed in an email to The Seattle Times.
PSE has not taken power from the dam since July 2020.
PSE warned Electron Hydro after the spill that it would cancel the contract if the company could not operate the dam in compliance with environmental laws.
The river is home to spring chinook and other fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Sylvia Miller, vice chairwoman of the Puyallup tribe, said she was glad the federal government brought the suit, which the tribe is likely to join.
“This should have been taken care of long ago,” she said of the dam. “It hurts my heart, we have worked so hard to protect these waters.”
The spill is ongoing: Tribal biologists have just in the last week recovered large mats of plastic turf and liner miles downstream, including a six foot piece 4.7 miles downstream, Anderson, the tribal attorney, wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.
The spill first came to light because of a social-media post by an employee of Electron Hydro who was outraged by the placement of the turf in a river he had fished all his life. The company did not notify regulators of the incident on its own.
Pierce County is taking steps to remove the Electron Dam on the Puyallup River because of environmental harm caused by the dam and its operations.
Miller said the tribe is eager to see the dam taken down.
“It was never the intention of the tribe to have that dam there, it is not a good thing for us, and it is not a good thing for the habitat. “
The dam was first built more than 100 years ago. Electron Hydro was doing construction work on the dam intended to correct problems known to kill protected species, including salmon and bull trout, during regular operations.
Officials at Electron Hydro could not immediately be reached for comment.