Group sues to force pollution disclosure at Washington dam

SEATTLE – An environmental group sued the federal agency that operates the nation’s largest hydropower producer Wednesday, saying operations at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state are polluting the Columbia River in violation of federal clean-water laws.

The non-profit Columbia Riverkeeper says the Bureau of Reclamation should get a pollution permit and be required to disclose as well as reduce the amount of oil, greases and other pollutants the dam in eastern Washington sends into local waters.

“The dam is similar to a giant factory placed in the river, and the federal government should play by the same rules as other dischargers,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, the group’s executive director.

Manufacturing plants, municipal wastewater treatment plants and other facilities that release pollutants into waterways must obtain permission from state and federal governments.

Michael Williamson, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation. The agency operates 53 hydroelectric power plants in the country.

The Grand Coulee Dam, about 90 miles west of Spokane, provides enough electricity to power 2.3 million households in 11 states and Canada in one year.

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, flowing more than 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. It is treasured for its beauty and recreational offerings, and for the salmon and steelhead caught by sport and commercial fishermen and Native Americans.

The group says water pollution harms salmon and wildlife and threatens the health of people who eat local fish.

The lawsuit alleges an unknown amount of oil stored and used at the dam enters the Columbia River without monitoring and other controls required under the federal Clean Water Act.

In 2013, the group similarly sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for releasing — without a pollution permit — oils, cooling water and other pollutants from eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.

In a 2014 settlement, the Corps agreed to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams send into local waters and, for the first time on those dams, apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a pollution permit. The Corps also agreed to investigate the use of more environmentally friendly oils at the dams.

Columbia Riverkeeper says it hopes Wednesday’s lawsuit will push the Bureau of Reclamation to do the same.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane.