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Group Sues Idaho Power over River Violation

by Chad Baldwin
Times-News, July 18(?), 2002

BLISS -- Idaho Power Co. violated the Clean Water Act when it placed about 9,700 cubic yards of fill material in the Snake River channel in 1999 or 2000, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the federal agency has yet to take enforcement action against the power company, prompting Idaho Rivers United Wednesday to announce it will sue Idaho Power over the matter.

"Since the federal government will not enforce the terms of its own permit against Idaho Power, Idaho Rivers United has to step up to do so," said Sara Denniston Eddie, director of hydropower and energy programs for the environmental group. "It is important to show companies like Idaho Power that they cannot get away with such blatant violations of the law."

Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez acknowledged that the company deviated from its federal permit in a dredging project at the Bliss hydropower project. But he took issue with Idaho Rivers United's characterization of what was done at the site and questioned whether any environmental damage resulted from it.

The Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, said it is still considering what action to take against Idaho Power but doesn't see the situation as an emergency. An agency official in 2000 had written that the company's "blatant disregard for federal permit requirements is very disturbing."

In September 1999, the Corps of Engineers issued a permit for Idaho Power to remove about 5,000 cubic yards of rock from the tailrace area below Bliss Dam in the Snake River. Lopez explained that the material, much of it deposited in the high water years of 1997 and 1999, needed to be removed because it was hampering the efficiency of the power plant.

The permit authorized Idaho Power to use 400 cubic yards of the dredged rock material as riprap along the north bank of the river and 250 cubic yards for temporary work pads. The rest was to be removed from the site.

When the dredging project began, Lopez said, Idaho Power found that there was much more material that needed to be removed from the tailrace area than surveys had shown. Crews ended up removing about 10,100 cubic yards, says the Corps of Engineers. And instead of depositing only 650 cubic yards at the site, Idaho Power put 9,700 yards of the dredged material in the river channel -- 6,500 along the north bank and 3,200 along the south bank. The rest was used to construct a boat access ramp and an access road.

"Your company is aware of our permit requirements, and I cannot understand why such a deviation occurred without prior approval," Lt. Col. Richard Wagenaar of the Corps of Engineers wrote in October 2000 to Idaho Power.

The company has asked the Corps of Engineers to modify the permit to allow the dredged material to stay where it is, but the agency has not yet responded to that request. And although the Corps has the ability to order Idaho Power to remove the material -- and could even suggest civil or criminal penalties -- no such action has taken place.

That's because the violation -- when weighed against other duties of the agency -- isn't at the top of its priority list, said Robert Brochu, an Idaho Falls-based Corps of Engineers staffer who oversaw the dredging project permit.

"It's just our workload priority. We haven't gotten to it yet," Brochu said. "In cases like this, we look at whether ongoing environmental damage is occurring. If it isn't, then it's not a high priority."

Idaho Rivers United suggests other factors might be at work.

"Idaho Power has a lot of political power in this state," Eddie said. "This situation follows an unfortunate pattern of federal environmental agencies being reluctant to fulfill their responsibilities to protect public resources."

That's not the case, said Dutch Meier, public affairs chief for the Corps' Walla Walla district. The agency determines priorities based upon whether there is immediate environmental impact and the size of that impact.

"It would not be accurate to say the Corps is shirking or disinterested in its responsibility to protect the environment," he said. "The Corps takes its environmental roles and responsibilities with great seriousness."

Eddie said Idaho Rivers United scientists haven't yet been to the site, so the group can't say for certain if there has been environmental damage. But she said placing such material in the river and on the shoreline could hurt water quality and aquatic life.

"The Snake River is an invaluable resource owned by the people of Idaho, and Idaho Power cannot use the river as its private dumping ground," she said. "Our two main objectives are to get Idaho Power to repair the damage it has done, and to just enforce the principle that companies like Idaho Power can't blatantly disregard the law like they've done."

Lopez took issue with a statement in an Idaho Rivers United press release that the company had "dumped approximately 9,700 cubic yards of fill into the river."

"To characterize that we dumped material in the river is, in our opinion, totally wrong," he said. "The material was removed from the river bed and used to reinforce the river bank."

Eddie's response: "All the information we have comes from Army Corps and EPA files. What we saw in their files said Idaho Power dumped fill illegally into the river and on the shoreline, which are both damaging."

Idaho Rivers United on Wednesday issued a 60-day notice letter to Idaho Power, the first step required to file an enforcement action under the Clean Water Act. The federal law allows citizens to sue to enforce its provisions and imposes penalties of $27,500 per day for violations.

Chad Baldwin, Times-News City Editor
Group Sues Idaho Power over River Violation
Times-News, July 18(?), 2002

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