Summary of Columbia Riverkeeper 2014 Dams Settlement

August 4, 2014
Columbia Riverkeeper v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Case No. 2:13-md-02494-LRS

  • Background: The U.S Army Corps of Engineers owns and operate eight large hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River and Snake River. Over the last six years, Columbia Riverkeeper received dozens of spill response notices that the dams spilled oil, some of which contains cancer-causing PCBs into the rivers. A 1500-gallon oil spill from the Ice Harbor dam in 2012 contained PCBs at levels 14,000,000% greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards. Columbia Riverkeeper’s investigations also found that the dams leak oil as a part of their routine operation.
  • Columbia Riverkeeper filed three complaints in federal court on July 31, 2013, regarding discharge of pollutants from eight dams in violation of the Clean Water Act. The Eastern District of Washington centralized the three cases into No. 2:13-md-02494-LRS.
  • Dams impacted by the settlement: Columbia River dams = Bonneville, John Day, The Dalles, and McNary. Lower Snake River dams = Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite.
    The Army Corps’ obligation under settlement:
    EPA oversight and Pollution Limits: Within one year of the agreement, the Army Corps shall apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for pollution permits to address the discharges from powerhouse drainage sumps, unwatering sumps, spillway sumps, navigation lock sumps, wicket gate bearings, turbine blade packing/seals, and discharges from cooling water systems at each dam. See Settlement Agreement, Section 2.
    Why important?
  • Clean Water Act permits will limit the amount and type of pollution discharged from the dams.
  • The Clean Water Act permits require installation of the Best Available Technology to prevent spills.
  • For the first time, EPA will have direct oversight of the oil discharges from the dams
  • Army Corps shall notify Riverkeeper of all spills. Section 3.
    Why important?
  • Public oversight.
  • Environmentally friendly oil: The Army Corps must switch to using Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants (e.g. biodegradable, non-toxic) within 18 months if it is feasible to do so. The Army Corps must complete the feasibility analysis in 12 months. Section 4(a).
    Why important?
  • We need to get toxic petroleum products out of the water. Because the dams are so large and have so many moving parts in contact with water, spills are a problem. Switching to safer oil is a big step.
  • Oil Accountability. The Corps must prepare Oil Accountability Plans for the region and for each dam, which will track the addition and then the removal of all oil and grease to the dams, then account for any difference. E.g. if the amount of oil used in the dam is greater than the amount removed, then the Corps must address the missing oil. Section 4(b)
    Why important?
  • Because oil spills are hard to detect in the turbulent waters near the dams, this simple math (oil in versus oil out) will show how much oil is spilled.
  • The Army Corps must make the accountability reports public. Currently, the Army Corps is not required to monitor the oil going into and out of dams and does not disclose this information to the public.   Section 4(b).
    Why important?
  • Currently, there is no public disclosure. The public deserves to know. And when EPA writes permits to restrict oil pollution, the Corps’ spill information will inform EPA’s understanding of the pollution problem.
  • The legal documents for this case available:
    Proposed Order with Settlement Agreement
    Motion to Dismiss
    Notice of Intent to Sue
  • Press release available here.
    Photo of Bonneville Dam.