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Groundbreaking Settlement Ends Uncontrolled Oil Leaks at Eight of Nation's Biggest Dams

A groundbreaking settlement was announced yesterday that guarantees an end to uncontrolled oil leaks at eight Columbia and Snake River dams. This settlement, between Columbia Riverkeeper and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, brings some of the nation’s biggest dams into compliance with the Clean Water Act. 

Bonneville Dam is one of eight dams in the Pacific Northwest that will be required to apply for Clean Water Act permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year.

“This is a groundbreaking agreement for clean water,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “For years, the Army Corps has allowed harmful oil pollution to flow into the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and finally that will stop. With the dams coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act, we will see an end to toxic discharges and chronic seepage of pollutants that have been harming our communities.”

The settlement mandates the Army Corps applies for Clean Water Act permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for eight of the largest dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, including  the Bonneville, John Day and Dalles and McNary in Oregon, and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington state. 

The amount of oil and toxic pollution allowed to be discharged by the dams will be limited based on Clean Water Act permits. The permits will require the Army Corps to install “best available technology” to control spills. Pollution monitoring will be required and the Army Corps will have to switch from petroleum lubricants to a vegetable or biodegradable oil if feasible.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, talks with media yesterday announcing the groundbreaking settlement with the Army Corps.

This settlement comes a year after Columbia Riverkeeper first sued the Army Corps to end this unchecked oil pollution. There have been dozens of oil spills and chronic oil leaks at these dams, including in 2012 when the Army Corps discharged more 1,500 gallons of PCB-laden transformer oil at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. The oil from the Ice Harbor spill contained PCBs at levels 14,000,000 percent greater than state and federal chronic water quality standards. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system. 

Columbia Riverkeeper is hopeful that, since the Army Corps is the largest owner-operator of dams in the U.S., this settlement will signal a new era of accountability for the hundreds of hydro dams nationwide.

“We rely on toxic-free fish to fuel business in communities along the Columbia and Snake Rivers," said Bob Rees, Columbia River fishing guide and executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. "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.” 

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

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To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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