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Nation's First Lawsuit Filed Against EPA's Scott Pruitt

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By Brett VandenHeuvel

Thursday, Columbia Riverkeeper filed the nation's first lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's administrator Scott Pruitt, Columbia Riverkeeper et al. v. Pruitt.


Pruitt has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, he repeatedly sued the EPA to weaken environmental protections. It seems appropriate, then, that the first lawsuit against Pruitt could compel him to addresses the real impacts of climate change today. That's why we are in court, asking a federal judge to compel Pruitt to protect salmon from hot water—before it's too late.

Salmon need water cooler than 68°F for long-term survival, but the Columbia and Snake Rivers routinely exceed 70°F in the summer. And the water temperature continues to rise as our climate heats up. Low snow pack and record heat are becoming the new normal. For the Pacific Northwest, salmon are the canary in the climate change coal mine.

The summer of 2015 was a heart-breaking reminder of this long-recognized problem. That summer, I watched thousands of sockeye salmon swimming around in circles, scarred with lesions, waiting to die because they could not continue upstream to cold-water streams to spawn. Roughly 250,000 adult sockeye perished in the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers. Pollution—here, heat pollution—turned back almost entire run of Snake River sockeye salmon.

Climate change is not a future threat or something happening far away. It is impacting our quality of life, economy and local environment right now. The Columbia is just one example, but an important one.

Fortunately, there are things we can do right now to lower the water temperature in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers create large, stagnant pools that warm up the water, but changing the operation of those dams to simulate more natural flows could reduce river temperature. And removing the four lower Snake River dams—which biologists have been recommending since the Clinton administration—could dramatically decrease the temperature of the lower Snake.

This lawsuit, if won, would require Pruitt to make a plan to protect salmon from the twin causes of hot water in the Columbia and Snake Rivers: climate change and dams. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA must protect salmon from pollution, including heat pollution. We're asking a judge to order Pruitt to do his job: Acknowledge the immediate threat of climate change and make a plan to protect salmon.

The plaintiffs are Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. Plaintiffs are represented by: Bryan Hurlbutt, an attorney at Advocates for the West, a public interest nonprofit environmental law firm based in Boise, Idaho; Richard Smith, an attorney at Smith and Lowney PLLC in Seattle; and Miles Johnson, an attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River, Oregon.

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