Oil Leaks from Dams

Columbia Riverkeeper sued and forced eight large dams to reduce toxic oil pollution—a victory that the New York Times called “historic” and the Wall Street Journal called “groundbreaking.”

Riverkeeper’s legal settlement for Columbia and Snake River dams creates the following benefits:

  • EPA oversight: Within one year, the Army Corps must apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Clean Water Act permits for eight of the largest dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Currently, there's no oversight. UPDATE - The Army Corps has applied to EPA for discharge permits. EPA is currently evaluating the permit applications.
  • Pollution limits: The Clean Water Act permits will limit the amount of oil and toxic pollution discharged by the dams.
  • Pollution monitoring: For the first time, the Army Corps must monitor the type and quantity of pollution being discharged into the largest rivers in the Pacific Northwest. UPDATE: The monitoring is working. The Corps is measuring the amount of oil added to the dam equipment (e.g. turbines, gates) versus the oil removed for replacement. The Corps fixed leaks after finding that some oil was missing and likely spilling into the river.
  • Environmentally friendly oil: The Army Corps must study whether it is feasible to switch from using toxic petroleum products as lubricants in dams to using vegetable other biodegradable oils. If it is feasible, the Army Corps must switch. UPDATE: The Army Corps conducted laboratory tests and pilot tests with eco-friendly oil in some parts of the Bonneville and John Day dams. The Army Corps continues to test eco-friendly oil on additional equipment.
Chief Joseph Dam
Chief Joseph Dam
November 25, 2019

Columbia Riverkeeper, Army Corps Settle Lawsuit Over Oil Pollution from Chief Joseph Dam 

Lower Monumental Dam, photo by Bonneville Power Administration
Lower Monumental Dam
August 8, 2019

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) may have spilled up to 300 gallons of oil into the Snake River from the aging Lower Monumental Dam.

Rocky Reach Dam
Rock Island and Rocky Reach Dams
March 20, 2019

Columbia Riverkeeper and Chelan County Public Utility District Settle Legal Dispute to End Unlawful Oil Pollution at Two Dams on Columbia River

Victory! New Era of Accountability for some of Nation’s Largest Dams

Columbia Riverkeeper and Army Corps Reach Settlement to Slash Toxic Pollution in Columbia and Snake Rivers

August 4, 2014, Columbia Riverkeeper and partners celebrated a major victory in a year-long effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up its act on eight major dams in the Pacific Northwest. In a legal settlement with Riverkeeper, the Army Corps agreed to address the oil pollution seeping from dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

"This is a huge day for clean water. For years, the dams have discharged harmful oil pollution into the Columbia and Snake rivers, and finally that will stop. With the dams coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act, hopefully we will see an end to toxic spills and chronic seepage of pollutants that have been harming our community,"  said Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director of Columbia Riverkeeper.

This victory was lauded by fishermen who like clean water and Clean Water Act experts who appreciate the lawsuit’s significance.

“Columbia Riverkeeper’s settlement has implications for dams operating without pollution permits across the country. Like any industrial facility, dams are prohibited from discharging pollution until they obtain pollution permits,” said Melissa Powers, environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School and expert on the federal Clean Water Act. 

“Columbia Riverkeeper’s settlement demonstrates the power of citizen groups to hold government agencies accountable when other government regulators—here, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency—sit on their hands. Of course the Clean Water Act applies to federal facilities like hydroelectric dams that discharge oil pollution,” said Reed Super, an environmental attorney with over twenty years of experience who currently serves as the Legal Director for the international Waterkeeper Alliance. 

“We rely on toxic-free fish to fuel business in communities along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Columbia Riverkeeper’s work forcing the Corps to fess up to oil pollution from the dams and do something about it is critical to keeping Northwest rivers clean,” said Bob Rees, Columbia River fishing guide and Executive Director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

“Some of the greatest kiteboarding in the world is downstream of dams like Bonneville, The Dalles, and John Day. Columbia Riverkeeper’s willingness to take the Army Corps to task for ignoring clean water laws helps protect a river that belongs to the public.” -Jonathan Graca, an avid kiteboarder based in Hood River, Oregon.


This decision came a year after Riverkeeper first sued to end this unchecked pollution. The original suit described dozens of oil spills and chronic oil leaks at the dams. For example, in 2012, the Army Corps reported discharging over 1,500 gallons of PCB-laden transformer oil at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. According to the EPA, PCBs cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system. The oil from the Ice Harbor spill contained PCBs at levels 14,000,000 percent greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards.




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