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Suit Aims to Keep Fish Center Open

by William McCall, Associated Press
The Oregonian, March 17, 2006

Supporters say the research center, scheduled to close today, is a victim of political pressures

A group representing public employees, including federal scientists, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Bonneville Power Administration to force the government to keep open the office that tracks the number of fish in the Columbia River.

The complaint by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claims that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and BPA Administrator Stephen Wright retaliated against the Northwest Fish Passage Center because a federal judge relied on its data to order more water spilled from dams, aiding migrating salmon but reducing electricity sales.

The lawsuit, which seeks an emergency injunction to keep the center open, alleges the scientists' constitutional rights to free speech and due process were violated. A hearing was scheduled for this morning before U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty.

A Bonneville spokesman declined to comment. A spokesman for Craig had no immediate comment.

The center was to close today. The lawsuit said the closure was ordered only because Craig and Wright believe the scientists at the center "have taken a political position contrary to the interests of the hydroelectric power industry."

The scientists say they were simply doing their job by monitoring the salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other fish moving through the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

Last year, U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled the Bush administration's plan for operating federally owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers jeopardized the survival of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

Redden relied on data from the Fish Passage Center to order more water spilled over those dams during vital summer months to help juvenile salmon migrate to the sea.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council said this week it estimates the cost in lost hydropower generation at $60 million.

"This case concerns the important question of whether an agency of the federal government, a United States senator, and the hydropower industry lobby can conspire to violate the rights of, and retaliate against, a small group of employees who simply tried to provide timely and accurate information regarding the health of the fish stock in the Columbia and Snake river systems," the lawsuit said.

The battle over dams and salmon has defined regional politics for more than a generation. But Craig has gone too far, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"Sen. Craig had several months to substantiate his claim that the Fish Passage Center's science was 'tainted' or otherwise advocacy-driven," Hudson said. "He never did prove that point."

Richard Condit, the attorney for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said, "What Sen. Craig did was tantamount to tampering with a witness who testified against him."

The Fish Passage Center was established in Portland in the early 1980s by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to provide technical services to the fish management agencies and Native American tribes affected by dam operations. It has a staff of 10 researchers and support workers.

William McCall, Associated Press
Suit Aims to Keep Fish Center Open
The Oregonian, March 17, 2006

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