“Dams that pollute will no longer get a free pass.” -Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper
Legal Update: EPA sets pollution limits Lower Snake River dams
Large federal dams have discharged unlimited pollution into the Lower Snake River for over 50 years. That stops today.
I’m happy to report that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally set limits on oil and hot water pollution from the four Lower Snake River dams. This is a big moment. The Army Corps’ dams spill dirty oil and heat up the rivers to unbearable temperatures for salmon; the permits issued by EPA today will ratchet back on this pollution.
We saw thousands of salmon dying in hot water again this year. Yet, the Army Corps has done nothing to address the water temperature crisis that it created. Today’s permits will change that by requiring the Army Corps to meet the targets in EPA’s temperature pollution budget for the Columbia and Snake rivers (also called a “total maximum daily load” or “TMDL”).
Today’s permits are the result of a multi-year legal campaign that began in 2013 when Columbia Riverkeeper sued the Army Corps for illegally discharging pollution without Clean Water Act permits. It’s a win, to be sure. But there is more work ahead.
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Army Corps Must Control Pollution
EPA sets limits on pollution, hot water from Lower Snake River dams
Seattle, WA (September 30, 2021)—Large federal dams have discharged unlimited pollution into the Lower Snake River for decades. That stops today.
For the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set limits on oil and hot water pollution from four federal dams in the Lower Snake River. The EPA will now require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) to collect pollution samples, report data to the EPA and the public, and ratchet back on pollution.
“Dams that pollute will no longer get a free pass,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “The Army Corps’ dams spill dirty oil and heat up the rivers to unbearable temperatures for salmon. It’s long past time for the Army Corps to correct its illegal pollution problems.”
The permits issued today cover the four Lower Snake River dams: Ice Harbor; Lower Monumental; Little Goose; and Lower Granite. Importantly, the permits require the Army Corps to “implement temperature control strategies and meet the load allocations in the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers Temperature TMDL.” Reducing the dams’ temperature pollution could ultimately require reservoir drawdown and other structural changes to the dams.
“We saw thousands of salmon dying in hot water again this year. Yet, the Army Corps did nothing to address the crisis that it created. These permits require the Army Corps to cool the rivers to protect salmon,” said VandenHeuvel.
As environmental law professor Michel Blumm explained in a recent article: “Considering salmon population trajectories and climate change trends, there is a very real possibility that imposing TMDL requirements on the Columbia Basin dams may represent the last best chance to restore Snake River salmon and trout runs before wild populations die out.”
"Hot water from the dams is killing fish and it's killing jobs in our industry. The Army Corps needs to obey clean water laws and address this issue quickly before the salmon are gone," said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
The Army Corps faced legal pressure to obtain pollution discharge permits. On September 1, 2021, Columbia Riverkeeper sent the Army Corps a letter of intent to sue if the Army Corps did not obtain permits.
Today’s permits are the result of legal action by Columbia Riverkeeper. Columbia Riverkeeper first sued the Corps, which owns and operates the dams, in 2013 for illegally discharging pollution without a permit. The Corps applied for permits in 2015, as required by the settlement in that lawsuit, and the EPA finally issued the permits today. The EPA delayed issuing those permits after the State of Washington required the Corps to meet state water quality standards.
- Link to Clean Water Act Permits for the Lower Snake River Dams
- Salmon and the Clean Water Act: An Unfinished Agenda, by Michael C. Blumm and Michael Benjamin Smith, 51 Environmental Law Reporter 10109 (2021).