Lawsuit says Army Corps dams driving Columbia River pollution 'crisis'

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Homes are pictured along the Columbia River. April 22, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder

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  • Group accuses Corps of illegal pollutant discharges in Columbia River from three dams
  • Lubricants, heated water harm salmon and other species, lawsuit says

(Reuters) - Environmentalists on Wednesday accused the Army Corps of Engineers of contributing to the Columbia River's "pollution crisis" by illegally discharging lubricants and other toxic pollutants from three hydroelectric dams it operates.

Columbia Riverkeeper alleges in a Richland, Washington federal court lawsuit that the Corps failed to obtain permits that would place regulatory limits on its discharges of heated water, grease and oil from the Dalles, John Day and McNary damns in southern Washington.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits discharges of pollutants in federal waters unless permitted.

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The Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Columbia Riverkeeper alleges that the discharges are ongoing daily despite the Corps committing in 2014 to apply for the permits to settle a similar lawsuit.

As part of that case, also brought by Columbia Riverkeeper, the non-profit agreed to refrain from suing over the alleged unpermitted discharges for seven years. That period concluded in August with the dams still lacking permits, the complaint says.

The Corps applied in 2015 for the permits but the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to issue them, according to the complaint, which does not name the EPA as a defendant.

The lawsuit claims that the Corps has been illegally discharging water used to cool certain parts of the dams.

The heated water threatens the health of fish like salmon that live in cool environments, the complaint says.

The lubricants used on the dams' turbines, meanwhile, leak to surface waters, and toxic chemicals they contain make their way up the food chain after fish ingest them, the complaint alleges. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been found in the lubricants released from the dams, said Columbia Riverkeeper lawyer Miles Johnson.

The 1,240-mile long Columbia River is one of North America's largest rivers by volume. Washington state authorities list it as polluted because its high-water temperatures can harm salmon.

The case is Columbia Riverkeeper v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Eastern District of Washington for the U.S. District Court, No. 4:21-cv-05152.

For Columbia Riverkeeper: Brian Knutsen of Kampmeier & Knutsen; and Miles Johnson of Columbia Riverkeeper

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Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.