EPA Begs to Differ with Corpsby Eric Barker
The Lewiston Tribune, August 4, 2000
Agency says corps must abide by Clean Water Act
The Environmental Protection Agency is admonishing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its belief it doesn't have to live up to the Clean Water Act as a matter of law.
A letter sent by Charles E. Findley, acting regional administrator of the EPA, responds to an earlier letter sent by Brig. Gen. Carl A. Strock. In that letter Strock writes, "As a matter of policy, not as a legal requirement, the corps complies with applicable water quality standards to the extent practicable in the operation of multiple purpose water resource projects."
Strock goes on to say the corps meets water quality standards in most instances but in some cases it is impossible to operate the dams or modify them so the standards can be met.
Findley responds the corps does have to comply with the Clean Water Act and names several court decisions to back up his claim.
"EPA disagrees that the corps has no legal obligation to comply with applicable water quality standards in operating the Snake River dams," he says.
One of the court decisions listed in the letter references an ongoing case in which the corps is being sued by several environmental groups and the Nez Perce Tribe for its failure to comply with the Clean Water Act in regards to temperature and dissolved gas in the lower Snake River.
In that case, federal Judge Helen Frye at Portland ruled the corps does indeed have to comply with the act. Now she must determine whether or not the corps has violated the act by its operation of the four lower Snake River dams.
Findley says the failure of the corps and other federal agencies to work toward meeting water quality standards has "seriously undermined" the agency, state and tribe's efforts to clean the lower Snake River.
The Nez Perce Tribe and the environmental groups that filed the suit say they feel vindicated by the EPA's interpretation of the law.
"We are pleased that the EPA has taken a strong position that the corps and its dams are subject to federal water quality laws and regulations," says Samuel N. Penney, tribal chairman. "It's unfortunate that the corps has continued to disregard its obligations under the Clean Water Act despite a clear ruling from a federal district court on the issue."
The EPA also says the corps has not lived up to the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately addressing water quality standards in its study of juvenile fish passage at the four lower Snake River dams.
"There is a continuing impact of the project on water quality in the mainstem system. Therefore, the (environmental impact statement) for the project needs to include a complete discussion of proposed mitigation for those project impacts," writes Findley.
One alternative of that study is to breach the dams to recover threatened and endangered fish runs. The tribe and environmental groups want to breach the dams and claim doing so would improve water quality.
Findley also writes that failing to include the cost of meeting water quality standards "could have the effect of seriously under-representing the cost of retaining the dams and therefore overpricing the cost of dam removal in relative terms."
Strock indicates in his letter the corps plans to address water quality problems through a water quality plan being considered by the corps and other members of the federal family.
Doug Arndt, chief of the fish management division of the corps, says senior officials have not had a chance to read the letter and assess its implications.
"We do agree this is a very critical issue and we are going to give it the attention it deserves," he says. "We do not want to create the perception that the EPA and the corps are at odds if we are indeed not."
Nicole Cordan, a policy and legal advisor for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at Portland, says addressing water quality standards in the Snake River would drastically reduce the estimated cost of dam breaching.
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