FERC Sued over Petition Inactionby Ken Dey
Idaho Statesman, May 2, 2003
American Rivers and Idaho Rivers United filed suit Thursday against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission alleging the agency has failed to adequately examine the impact of Idaho Power Co.'s Hells Canyon hydropower complex on Snake River salmon and steelhead.
Leaders of the two environmental groups said they filed the suit because FERC has never acted on a 1997 petition the groups filed with the agency. That petition asked FERC to ensure that the operation of the Hells Canyon dams complex was adequately protecting endangered salmon and steelhead.
“A lawsuit is always the last resort. Unfortunately, this suit is necessary to improve the health of the Snake River and protect salmon,” said Connie Kelleher of American Rivers. “FERC is ignoring its legal mandate to make sure that Idaho Power operates its Hells Canyon dams in a way that protects endangered species.”
The groups maintain that the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to carry out formal consultation with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ensure that their actions, such as issuing a hydropower dam license, do not jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered species.
The groups said FERC never consulted with NOAA, which prompted them to petition FERC in 1997 to complete the consultation. The groups said they never received an answer to the petition and there has been no consultation.
The suit asks the the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to order FERC to acknowledge the petition and either act on it or deny it.
“For over five years FERC has allowed our petition to languish, while Snake River salmon continue to be harmed by the Hells Canyon dams,” Kelleher said. “FERC´s delay is inexcusable and irresponsible given its duties under the ESA.”
A FERC spokesperson said Thursday that the agency doesn't comment on ongoing lawsuits filed against the agency.
Idaho Power Co. is currently in the process of applying for a 30-year license from FERC to continue operating the three-dam Hells Canyon complex. The company's current license expires in 2005.
The groups say that FERC need not wait for a relicense to impose conditions on Idaho Power and require the company to implement changes at the dams that would benefit salmon.
“FERC has a very poor track record of issuing timely licenses, so by the time it issues a new license for Hells Canyon, it may be too late,” said Sara Denniston Eddie of Idaho Rivers United. “Endangered salmon don't have the luxury of time.”
The groups contend that the Hells Canyon complex is the “ultimate barrier” for migrating salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin since it blocks fish from hundreds of miles of their historic habitat. The groups also say the dams harm fish downstream by degrading water quality, interfering with fish migration and spawning by altering natural river flows and blocking the downstream movement of sediment, causing beach erosion and damage to fish habitat.
Idaho Power officials denied the charges. “To be frank the charges are inaccurate,” company spokesman Dennis Lopez said Thursday. “We have the science that would say otherwise.”
He said the project-related environmental issues are addressed in the company's 27,000-page draft relicensing application the company filed with FERC in the fall.
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