From Whatcom County, where Seattle City Light’s three Skagit River dams are located, to Seattle, where the public utility is headquartered, lawsuits are stacking up as re-licensing of the century-old hydroelectric project gets underway.
While one lawsuit focuses on “greenwashing” in Seattle City Light advertising and another focuses on the utility’s financials, there’s a common underlying theme among them: fish.
Skagit River salmon and steelhead populations are in trouble, and the dam re-licensing due to be complete in 2025 has placed renewed attention on how Seattle City Light’s Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams and powerhouses may affect those species.
While Seattle City Light has in some ways acknowledged concerns about fish, several stakeholders insist the city’s concessions don’t go far enough — and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and Skagit County are each fighting Seattle in court, under three separate lawsuits.
“While Seattle City Light claims it is studying fish passage, it is in fact using the FERC process in an effort to avoid fish passage,” one of the lawsuits states.
Here’s a look at the lawsuits:
The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe on June 30 sued Seattle City Light in Skagit County Superior Court, asserting that Seattle is violating federal and state law by blocking Skagit River fish at its dams.
The case was moved to the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington on July 29. Arguments have ensued over whether the case should be remanded back to Skagit County Superior Court. Seattle has also sought to have the case dismissed.
In an Aug. 19 filing, Seattle argued the tribe’s assertions hold no water and that the proper venue for fish passage discussions is with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees dam licensing and re-licensing.
“FERC should be allowed to exercise primary jurisdiction over the question of fish passage at Gorge Dam,” the court document states.
Skagit County on Aug. 23 filed an open public records lawsuit against Seattle City Light in Whatcom County Superior Court.
It states that Seattle has not responded to requests for financial records involving revenue from the sale of electricity generated at the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.
“Our requests, taken as a whole, seek to understand revenue and expenses associated with the Skagit Project, broken down by dam,” Skagit County’s complaint states.
The county seeks those records because it contends that Seattle City Light has not invested adequately in salmon and steelhead protection and recovery within the Skagit River watershed in accordance with the impact of its dams.
The lawsuit calls the alleged imbalance “Seattle’s unmet fisheries obligation in the Skagit.”
Skagit County Deputy Civil Prosecutor Will Honea said as of Wednesday, the city of Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle City Light and General Manager Debra Smith — each named in the lawsuit — had not filed a response to the complaint.
The law firm representing the city, however, filed a request on Sept. 13 to transfer the case to King County Superior Court.
The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe on Sept. 17 filed an additional lawsuit against Seattle in King County Superior Court.
That lawsuit accuses Seattle of violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act by “greenwashing” its reputation. According to the lawsuit, the city has deceived the public into believing its Skagit River Hydroelectric Project does not harm fish “with claims of superlative environmental responsibility.”
The tribe is asking the court to order Seattle to stop such advertising, which has included calling itself “the nation’s greenest utility.”
According to the tribe’s complaint, Seattle City Light in the early 2000s also obtained certification from the nonprofit Low Impact Hydropower Institute using the now publicly contested argument that fish were naturally blocked from the upper Skagit River before the dams were built.