Will Federal Dams Comply with the Clean Water Act?

Illegal Pollution from Dams

Will Federal Dams Comply with the Clean Water Act?

Senior Attorney, Miles Johnson, flying over McNary Dam. Aerial support from Lighthawk
Senior Attorney, Miles Johnson, flying over McNary Dam. Aerial support from Lighthawk

Imagine walking along the Columbia, maybe at a park or boat ramp. You see someone backing a flatbed trailer down to the water’s edge. The trailer is hauling 55-gallon oil barrels. The driver gets out and starts pouring a barrel straight into the river. His hat reads “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” The oil coming out is dirty black; it floats on the water and coats the shoreline. You watch him pour barrel after barrel into the river.

Sounds like a bad dream? Wake up. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) has been illegally discharging toxic oil and hot water into the Columbia and Snake rivers for decades. A series of oil spills at Lower Monumental Dam in 2017 spilled over 1,600 gallons of oil into the Snake River—that’s about 29 oil drums’ worth. It was hardly an isolated incident. Army Corps dams routinely spill or leak hundreds of gallons of oil into the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Think it’s unfair to compare the Army Corps’ oil spills to someone purposefully dumping dirty oil into the river off the back of a truck? What if you knew that some dam equipment is designed to continually leak oil and grease into the water? Does it matter to people and animals that rely on the Columbia whether oil gets into the water on purpose or accidentally? And when the Army Corps “accidentally” spills oil into the river over and over for decades without fixing the problem, are these really still accidents? Or is this just how the Army Corps does business?

Let’s be clear, oil pollution is bad for the Columbia River. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

Spilled oil can harm living things because its chemical constituents are poisonous. This can affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation. Oil can also smother some small species of fish or invertebrates and coat feathers and fur, reducing birds’ and mammals’ ability to maintain their body temperatures.

Not nice. But for decades, the Army Corps has spilled hundreds, or even thousands, of gallons of oil into the Columbia and Snake rivers every year. Because the Army Corps has never monitored oil pollution, we don’t know the exact amount.

Toxic contamination lurking in some of the Army Corps’ oil spills is also deeply troubling. In 2012, the Army Corps spilled over 1,500 gallons of transformer oil from Ice Harbor Dam into the Snake River. That oil contained high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are toxic substances that linger in the environment and accumulate to dangerous levels towards the top of aquatic food webs, such as in the bodies of fish, birds, and humans. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PCBs cause cancer and harm the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system—that’s a lot of important systems! The oil from the Ice Harbor spill contained PCBs at levels 14,000,000 percent greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards.

Heat pollution from the Army Corps’ dams and reservoirs also takes a heavy toll on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which are already too warm for salmon and steelhead. The dams create large, shallow reservoirs that soak up the sun’s energy and make the water too hot. The reservoirs sometimes warm the rivers so much that it actually kills or injures endangered salmon and steelhead. And the dams themselves discharge even more hot water, after using it to cool dam machinery. In 2015, hot water killed over 95 percent of the endangered Snake River sockeye salmon run; it will be a small miracle if nothing similar happens this summer. Scientists have long understood that the reservoirs raise the rivers’ temperature to levels that are dangerous for fish, and the Army Corps has also long resisted taking meaningful action to address its heat pollution.

Why is this happening? The Clean Water Act prohibits unregulated oil and heat pollution—but the Army Corps has pretended, for decades, that its dams are above the law. And EPA, the federal agency primarily responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, lacks the political influence and will to enforce the law against another federal agency. Clean Water Act discharge permits for the Army Corps’ dams could (if EPA wrote them correctly) result in less oil, toxics, and heat pollution reaching the Columbia and Snake rivers. But the Army Corps has avoided these permits for decades, and EPA is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. So the oil spills continue.

That’s where Columbia Riverkeeper comes in. We work to protect the river and hold our federal government accountable for its oil and hot water pollution.

In 2014, Riverkeeper sued the Army Corps for discharging oil and hot water from the dams without the necessary Clean Water Act permits. The Army Corps applied for those permits, but seven years later, EPA has not issued them. Because of the hold up, Riverkeeper may take the Army Corps back to court this fall and seek a court order to protect the Snake and Columbia. And if the Army Corps pressures EPA into issuing inadequate Clean Water Act permits for the dams, Riverkeeper can challenge the legality of those permits. When anyone—even a government agency—ignores the Clean Water Act, Riverkeeper takes action to protect our rivers and fisheries.

Eliza Carver Illustration
Illustration by Eliza Carver

“The Army Corps’ practice of spilling dirty oil into the Columbia and Snake rivers is disgusting and reprehensible,” says Captain Peter Wilcox, former Riverkeeper board president, U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Master Mariner, and longtime renewable energy user and advocate. “It’s also an affront to everyone who works hard to comply with the Clean Water Act and keep our waterways clean.”

Most of us don’t need EPA or a court to tell us that putting dirty oil in the river is wrong. But the Army Corps apparently does, so Riverkeeper will keep working to make that happen. Until then, the Army Corps’ oil and hot water pollution will continue hurting salmon and the cultures and ecosystems they support.


Oil-by-rail heating up; dive in at secret beaches; illegal pollution from dams; and Love Your Columbia educational series.