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Panel Disputes Breaching Study

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, July 27, 2000

The Army Corps of Engineers misjudged the pollution effects of removing four Snake River dams, a congressional report says

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to calculate the harm to local residents from air pollution caused by a shift from barging to trucking and by gas-fired power plants that would be needed to replace electricity lost if four Snake River dams were breached to aid salmon, congressional investigators have concluded.

The corps also failed to consider the harmful effects of contaminated river sediments that would be exposed to the air by breaching, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, a bipartisan investigative arm of Congress.

The study shows that a proposal to breach the federal dams should be abandoned, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said Wednesday. "We have known all along that breaching the dams would ruin Eastern Washington's way of life. It now looks as if the environmental impacts would be greater than we had previously thought."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which has been studying the proposal for five years, is to announce today in Portland that it is recommending that the dams not be breached, at least until other measures are tried, such as improving the health of rivers and streams.

The corps' $22 million study, still in draft form, compares the effectiveness of breaching with other options, among them leaving the dams unchanged and modifying the dams to help young salmon pass safely on their migration to the ocean.

The GAO report, which Gorton and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., requested, evaluated how well the corps examined the effects of breaching on electricity costs, transportation costs and air quality.

The agency was right to conclude that breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams would raise the average cost of electricity by $1.20 to $6.50 a month for a Northwest household, investigators said. And the conclusion that the cost of shipping wheat and other commodities by truck instead of by barge would rise 5 percent to 18 percent is "generally valid," the report said. The dams create navigable water for barges.

The GAO concluded, however, that the corps failed to adequately identify the effects on local communities of air pollution that would be caused by breaching. Specifically, the report said:

  1. Airborne emissions that would result from demolishing the earthen portions of the dam were not calculated for the sites nearest the dams and most likely to be affected.

  2. Emissions from increased use of trucks and trains for shipping were not adequately assessed for specific sites. For example, an estimated 223 additional trucks would pass through the Tri-Cities area each day.

  3. Estimates of windblown dust from sediments that would be exposed did not consider the presence of chemical contaminants, including heavy metals and DDT, thought to have accumulated along the river bottom.

  4. No estimates of the effect of increased air emissions on nearby communities from replacement power plants -- most likely natural-gas turbines -- were calculated. The four dams produce an average total of 1,250 megawatts, enough to supply 700,000 homes.

Doug Arndt, manager of the corps' Northwest fish recovery program, said work is under way to correct the problems the GAO report detailed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified some of those deficiencies earlier this year, he said.

"I thought the GAO gave us a very good score," Arndt said. "They said there are some areas that can be improved. We're taking that in a positive way and are going to improve them."

Jonathan Brinckman
Panel Disputes Breaching Study
The Oregonian, July 27, 2000

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