Success Stories

Columbia Riverkeeper works with people in dozens of communities—from rural to urban—who share the same goals: Protect the health of their families and the places they love. 




Riverkeeper has worked with tribal nations, local businesses, strong coalitions, and our amazing members to defeat nearly every fossil fuel project on the Columbia River! Western North America has huge fracked gas, oil, and coal reserves, and the Columbia River is a convenient route to ship these fossil fuels to Asia. We stand in the way. The maps below illustrate the challenges we face and our successes over the last decade. See "Fighting Fossil" Fuels for more details on current campaigns.


fossil fuel map, before
Fossil fuel infrastructure projects proposed on the lower Columbia during the last decade.


2018.03.05, Victories over fossil fuel projects and remaining challenges.
Victories over fossil fuel projects and remaining challenges.


On January 29, 2018, Governor Jay Inslee rejected the largest proposed oil train terminal in the United States. This was a major victory for our climate and river communities. Governor Inslee determined that the terminal proposed by Tesoro posed unacceptable risks to the health, safety, and sustainability of communities throughout Washington.

Riverkeeper partnered with amazing Vancouver activists and the Stand Up To Oil coalition to organize record-setting opposition to dirty oil. Over 300,000 people weighed in against Tesoro, and Washington’s Energy Council hearings on Tesoro saw the highest-attendance in the agency’s history. We salute the incredible work of Columbia River Tribes that stood up to oil-by-rail. Several Tribal Nations presented a rock-solid case to Washington’s Energy Council and the Governor on the dangerous impacts of oil-by-rail. We are honored to work in solidarity with these Tribes to protect the Columbia from the perils of oil-by-rail and other dangerous fossil fuel projects.

We also salute the tireless work of countless people across the Northwest. Our community organizers empowered the public and turned out record-breaking crowds to hearing after hearing, and our attorneys from Earthjustice shined throughout this long fight. We’re proud of our staff at Riverkeeper, who were there at the beginning to strategize and organize with our partners.

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Riverkeeper worked closely with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Umatilla), the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and nonprofit Northwest Environmental Advocates to push Oregon to adopt the nation’s most protective limits on toxic water pollution in 2011. Under the Clean Water Act, states set water pollution limits based, in part, on how much fish people eat. If the state assumes people rarely eat fish, the state can allow more toxic pollution. Estimating how much fish people eat matters. Oregon assumed people ate only a cracker-sized amount of fish per day. This vastly underestimated the amount of fish that many Oregonians ate and failed to protect those people from toxic pollution. In the end, Oregon revised its “fish consumption rate” to one-third of a pound per day—a huge improvement, new limits on toxic pollution discharges.

What Worked?

We listened. We recognized Umatilla and CRITFC's long-term leadership and expertise on fish consumption. After we were confident we could add value, Riverkeeper’s attorneys coordinated closely with Umatilla and CRITFC’s policy staff to advocate for less toxic pollution. Together, we fought against industry loopholes. We partnered with tribes’ media teams to attend editorial board meetings together, draft op-eds and coordinate messaging. Because the tribes did not want the new regulations to focus entirely on Native American fishers, Riverkeeper highlighted the impacts to non-tribal fishers, including recreational fishers, immigrants, and low-income people. We organized our members to submit comments and attend hearings to advocate for less pollution. Overall, we added value to the relationship by providing legal and organizing support, while respecting Umatilla and CRITFC’s strong leadership.



Riverkeeper and partners are restoring a natural area along Hood River’s rapidly developing waterfront. Riverkeeper holds a conservation easement to protect nearly three acres of riparian habitat near the confluence of the Columbia and Hood rivers. This abandoned industrial site, called Nichols Natural Area, can once again team with life. In 2015, Riverkeeper agreed to hold a conservation easement to protect the land after Friends of the Hood River Waterfront challenged a cable park development. The City of Hood River purchased the land and Riverkeeper is leading the restoration efforts. Read more about the Nichols Natural Area and the diverse team making it green again. 

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People often ask our staff at Columbia Riverkeeper: "Is it safe to swim?" To answer this question, Riverkeeper provides real-time water quality data for popular swim beaches in Portland, Vancouver, and the Columbia River Gorge. Riverkeeper has been testing the Columbia for E. coli bacteria for over a decade. Our goal is to encourage families to enjoy our rivers safely. Fecal bacteria in water can cause nausea, diarrhea, and infections, especially to children and the elderly. Surprisingly, no local or state agency regularly tests popular Columbia River swim beaches. The City of Portland samples the Willamette in seven locations, while the Oregon Health Authority tests ocean beaches. There is a data gap at the heavily used Columbia River sites. Columbia Riverkeeper fills that gap, while engaging volunteer river stewards.

Data doesn't sit on a shelf.

Riverkeeper posts testing results on the “Swim Guide” website and smartphone application, as well as our website and social media. Over two million people use “Swim Guide” and 199,000 people have viewed our Columbia River data. The outcome is safer swimming and recreation during the busy summer months. Fortunately, E. coli is typically within safe levels, so our data help encourage people to enjoy the water.

Download the “Swim Guide” Today



We got tired of receiving phone calls about another oil spill from large hydroelectric dams frequently spill oil into the Columbia. Oregon and Washington tried unsuccessfully for years to get dams including Bonneville, The Dalles, and Grand Coulee to clean up their acts. We learned that some of the oil contained cancer-causing PCBs. And then engineers explained that the dams leak oil all the time. 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.” The federal government agreed to ratchet back on pollution and switch to non-toxic, biodegradable oils where feasible.

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Brett VandenHeuvel, Riverkeeper's Executive Director, shares memories of the coal campaign
I remember vividly the phone call in 2010. A tip about plans to build a Columbia River shipping terminal to export coal to China. Big money, big players, big problem. I hung up and banged my head on my desk. And left it there. How could we fight big coal?

Jump ahead two years: nearly two thousand people in red ‘no coal’ shirts cheered and waved signs as rain fell on our rally in Longview, Washington. The speakers—a local doctor, pastor, business owner, and Montana rancher—addressed the crowd about the risks of dirty coal. Surveying the sea of red shirts, a longtime resident of Longview said: "I’ve never been so proud of my community."

Jump ahead again, to September 26, 2017. Washington’s Department of Ecology denied a key permit, killing the last coal export terminal proposed on the Columbia. Sure, the victory was final in 2017, but that rainy day in Longview may have been the moment we truly won. The passionate local activists, the massive crowd, the record-setting number of written comments, and that new-found sense of pride all led Washington to deny the permit. How did we fight Big Coal? Together. We helped build Power Past Coal, a coalition of non-profit, business, health, and faith communities, partnering with tribal nations, working with a common vision and strategy to defeat coal export. Together, we purposefully designed the coalition along the rail lines—from the Powder River Basin to the shipping ports and dozens of communities in between. We helped generate an unprecedented grassroots organizing effort to pack public hearings, earn media stories, and build local leadership.

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Fracked gas companies targeted the lower Columbia River for liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. After defeating the Bradwood Landing LNG terminal in 2010, the people of the Columbia River estuary beat the last remaining LNG terminal proposal—called Oregon LNG—in April 2016. For both Bradwood and Oregon LNG, the gas giants were supposed to win. They carefully selected small towns, greased the skids, and hired all the right law firms and lobbyists. Nobody warned them about people’s fierce love of the river and how hard they would fight to protect it. Twelve years of smart, creative, and persistent effort by local residents and partners defeated LNG and protected the mighty Columbia. Stories of local opposition to LNG are legion—from Warrenton, Astoria, Puget Island, Vernonia, and Forest Grove to name a few. The public hearings were endless. And the courts always had an LNG case or two. In the end, LNG’s fate was decided when the rallying cry of a coastal fishing town reached a New York City board room; we value our river more than a $6-billion fossil fuel export project. But this victory reverberated across our nation. We received dozens of calls from reporters, climate leaders, and elected officials throughout the United States. At the time, Oregon LNG was the last best hope for exporting fracked gas from the West Coast. The victory prevented the export of 1.2 billion cubic feet per day of fracked natural gas; a stunning volume of carbon, which would drive more fracking across the West. That’s twice as much gas as Oregon uses each day. We are moving aggressively toward renewable energy. New infrastructure to support fracking and burning natural gas takes us in the wrong direction. The victory also protected critical salmon habitat. Oregon LNG planned to dredge a 135-acre hole in the Columbia River for LNG tankers—the largest private dredging project in the history of the Columbia River. The victory prevented a giant industrial scar in the Columbia River estuary, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Oregon LNG is a lesson and the inspiration we point to when challenges are daunting. This victory empowers. This victory gives hope. 2018 Update: Please help our friends at Rogue Riverkeeper and Rogue Climate fight the Jordan Cove LNG terminal in Coos Bay. 

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Together, we've earned a string of victories that protect clean water and our climate. We're proud that we can do this together.



Rivekeeper has been a public-interest voice for Hanford cleanup for two decades. Although Hanford's nuclear legacy poses an incredible cleanup challenge and threatens the Columbia, we are proud to contribute to meaningful progress in protecting the Hanford Reach.

What Worked?
  • In 2017, we engaged our members to challenge President Trump's proposal to reduce the Hanford Reach National Monument, a proposal that could have jeopardized the Hanford Reach's natural, cultural, tribal, and fisheries resources.
  • We encouraged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy to address toxic hexavalent chromium contamination, which was upwelling into salmon habitat near mothballed plutonium reactors. EPA and DOE delved into cleanup with deep digs in the river corridor, reducing the amount of chromium entering the River.
  • Riverkeeper and partner groups encouraged EPA to invest in groundwater treatment. Now, EPA's massive pump-and-treat system near some of Hanford's worse pollution has treated billions of gallons of groundwater, removing tons of toxic and radioactive pollution before it can reach the Columbia.
  • Since 2000, Riverkeeper and our allies have successfully blocked proposals to make Hanford a dump site for Greater Than Class C (GTCC) radioactive waste and toxic mercury.
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Waterside Energy proposed the first west coast oil refinery in 25 years and the first ever on the Columbia River. Oil trains would have delivered crude to the refinery in Longview. Waterside Energy announced the project to great fanfare in 2015, after negotiating quietly with the Port of Longview for nearly two years. Riverkeeper partnered with the Lower Columbia Stewardship Council to launch a rapid-response campaign.

First, we provided the Port of Longview information about the proposed terminal. Riverkeeper discovered Waterside's backers were engaged in a failed biofuels business, so we submitted numerous public records requests and spoke to key people involved. We found out Waterside’s principals had abruptly fired their workers, failed to pay debts, and left behind a Superfund cleanup site at their old facility. We met with Port Commissioners and presented this information.  

Second, we partnered with local residents to pressure the Port to reject the oil refinery. We organized regular attendance and comments at Port meetings, including comments on Waterside’s finances and business reputation. We highlighted the health impacts of oil refineries and the financial risk to the Port. Local residents submitted regular OpEds and letters to the editor. On February 23, 2016, the Port of Longview commissioners voted unanimously to end negotiations with Waterside Energy. This rapid-response campaign helped prevent a new oil refinery on the Columbia.

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Riverkeeper and allies challenged and overturned an important permit for the Kalama methanol refinery in October 2017. The Washington Shorelines Hearings Board ruled that the Port of Kalama violated state law by failing to disclose the project's full greenhouse gas emissions. This win set the important precedent that Washington decisionmakers must look at the full lifecycle climate impacts of fracked gas, not simply what comes out of the smokestack.

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Riverkeeper reached a settlement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation designed to end uncontrolled toxic oil pollution from Grand Coulee Dam, finally bringing one of the nation’s biggest dams into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Grand Coulee has leaked oil into the Columbia for over 70 years—endangering public health and threatening fish and wildlife.
The Grand Coulee Dam settlement requires the Bureau of Reclamation to join its federal partners at the Corps to investigate replacing toxic oils at Grand Coulee with eco-friendly lubricants or switch to using non-lubricated equipment. For the first time in American history, the Corps is testing eco-friendly oils in large hydroelectric dams, as required by Riverkeeper’s 2014 settlement. If the tests are successful, the Corps must switch to eco-friendly oil in eight of America’s largest dams: Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite. Riverkeeper’s latest settlement builds on the Corps’ investigation and could lead to similar changes at Grand Coulee Dam.

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Riverkeeper volunteers collected samples for a new Oregon Health & Science University study about the pharmaceutical metformin in the Columbia River. The study, led by Dr. Tawnya Peterson, Dr. Joseph Needoba, and Brittany Cummings, draws attention to a relatively new kind of unregulated pollution.

Every day, wastewater treatment plants and storm drains add millions of gallons of wastewater to the Columbia River. This wastewater is usually treated, but the treatment methods are not designed to remove the pesticides, herbicides, flame retardants, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals that can wind up in household wastewater. Collectively, these substances are called Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CECs). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not generally regulate CECs, even though the EPA knows or suspects that many CECs harm aquatic life.

We know that CECs are going into the Columbia. In 2013, a Riverkeeper-supported study detected CECs in the wastewater of seven sewage treatment plants. Scientists also detected CECs in sediments on the Columbia River bottom in 2012.

But the Columbia is a huge river. With all that water diluting the contamination, can we really detect CECs like personal care products and pharmaceuticals in the Columbia? Yes. In a groundbreaking study in 2014, Dr. Peterson and her colleagues detected, for the first time, personal care products and pharmaceuticals in the open waters of the Columbia. Although the concentrations of most CECs were very low, our ability to detect these contaminants in such a large river suggests that a lot of CECs are entering the Columbia.

Dr. Peterson and colleagues focused their research on a CEC called metformin—a drug for treating Type II diabetes. Metformin, at the concentrations typically found in treated sewage, interferes with sexual development and reproduction in certain fish.

Peterson’s recent work—in partnership with Riverkeeper and funded by Oregon Sea Grant—tracked metformin at several Columbia River sites between The Dalles and Astoria. Metformin appears to be widespread throughout the Columbia. The highest metformin concentrations were typically found downstream of the Willamette River confluence during low flows, but the overall amount of metformin entering the Columbia remained about the same year round.

The good news is this: metformin concentrations in the Columbia are 250–300 times lower than in the studies that demonstrated impacts on fish. Now the bad news: we don’t know if, or how, fish respond to the concentrations of metformin currently in the Columbia. We also don’t understand how mixtures of CECs affect fish and wildlife. Metformin is one of many unregulated chemicals, and Riverkeeper will keep supporting science about how CECs impact the Columbia River.

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Sandvik, an international company with $82 billion in sales, discharged high levels of toxic metals, fluoride, and ammonia into the Columbia River for years from a metal fabrication plant in Kennewick, Washington. Riverkeeper’s lawsuit forced Sandvik to stop illegal pollution by fixing its treatment system and pay a $650,000 mitigation penalty to three local non-profit organizations to protect clean water.

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The Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of Columbia Riverkeeper over the Port of Vancouver on June 8, 2017. Port of Vancouver Commissioners met in secret with each other—and with representatives of Tesoro—to discuss Tesoro’s proposal to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal. The Port leased land to Tesoro, paving the way for the highly controversial terminal. The Port argued that it could keep many facts hidden from the public. The Supreme Court rejected the Port’s approach, stating that the law is “crystal clear in its response to such arguments: The people do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” This case established Supreme Court precedent that Ports cannot abuse exceptions to the Open Public Meetings Act to hold executive sessions. This precedent will help stop future backroom deals. Holding elected officials accountable in court matters now more than ever.

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Take a stand for clean water and healthy communities. 

fossil fuel map, before
Case Study
Fossil fuel terminal

Riverkeeper has worked with tribal nations, local businesses, strong coalitions, and our amazing members to defeat nearly every fossil fuel project on the Columbia River

Case Study:
Vancouver oil-by-rail

On January 29, 2018, Governor Jay Inslee rejected the largest proposed oil train terminal in the United States. This was a major victory for our climate and river communities.

Case Study:
Nation’s Best Toxic Pollution Limits

Riverkeeper worked closely with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Umatilla), the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and nonprofit Northwest Environmental Advocates to push Oregon to adopt the nation’s most protective limits on toxic water pollution in 2011.