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Commentaries and editorials

Second Oil Spill in Six Weeks
Plagues The Dalles Dam

by Associated Press, February 24, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Less than 15 gallons of oil spilled into the Columbia River Monday from a malfunctioning unit at The Dalles Dam - the second such spill in six weeks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that the oil leaked when workers were preparing a generating unit for maintenance.

The crews were not able to contain the spill as it moved into the turbulent waters below the dam and were forced to let it move downstream.

Six weeks ago, about 2,000 gallons of mineral oil containing a cancer-causing compound spilled into the river when a transformer cracked under the weight of the winter cold. About 1,300 gallons were eventually traced downstream from the dam, said Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Portland district of the U.S. Army Corps.

That oil spill left a rainbow-hued streak 23 miles long as it traveled down the Columbia.

The Corps faced sharp criticism from environmental groups for not announcing the spill until the day after it occurred and for grossly underestimating its volume.

Agency officials initially reported that 75 gallons of oil had leaked into the river - a figure which was then amended to 1,000 gallons, then 2,250 gallons over the subsequent days.

Brent Foster, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, called Monday's spill "incredible and disconcerting."

He stressed the earlier spill could have been prevented - and the more recent occurrence is an indication that emergency procedures have not been implemented.

A panel of experts set up by the Corps in February found that the spill could indeed have been prevented.

The panelists concluded that old equipment and lax maintenance and inspection procedures contributed to the Jan. 15 incident.

Foster said that emergency procedures, agreed upon by the Corps in consultation with Columbia Riverkeeper following the January spill, called for the agency to name the maximum volume of the container from which the spill came from at the time of its occurrence.

"We want to know what the worst case scenario is - not what they think got into the river," said Foster, referring to the 15 gallon figure.

Rabe said, though, that the 15 gallons were the worst case scenario.

"The 15 is high," he said Tuesday morning. "We believe that a gallon actually got into the river this time. We are figuring high, and we will amend that number as more information becomes available."

In January, the final 2,250 figure was achieved by draining the malfunctioning transformer and calculating how much had been released based on how much volume was left.

"The Corps is still in the process of upgrading its spill response procedures following a Jan. 15 mineral oil spill," Rabe said.

Associated Press
Second Oil Spill in Six Weeks Plagues The Dalles Dam, February 24, 2004

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