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Corps says Progress Made Since Dam Oil Spill

by Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, April 9, 2004

Army Corps of Engineers officials say the agency has made progress in its maintenance and spill prevention after a 1,300-gallon mineral oil spill in January into the Columbia River at The Dalles Dam.

The agency came under fire after its failure to notify tribal interests, state officials and the public of the incident.

"We ended up being notified by second- and third-hand parties, and that is unacceptable to us," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, of the January spill. "It was a considerable amount of time -- at least a couple of days before we were contacted by the Corps itself, and details were slow to come."

The Corps determined the spill had to do with maintenance issues and has promised to provide better response and communication on any future spills. Senior Corps officials gave the Northwest Power and Conservation Council an update on their efforts Thursday in Portland.

Environmental groups say they are pleased with the Corps' progress, but that there is still work to be done.

Fisheries interests and the state Department of Ecology had criticized the Corps for not releasing the information soon enough, lax maintenance and inability to capture the much of the January mineral oil spill before it was washed downstream.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will review powerhouse maintenance throughout the agency's dams early next month, Corps officials said. Late next month, the agency plans to meet with environmental groups, tribes and other government agencies to come up with a better communications plan.

"We're not done yet," said Matt Rabe, spokesman for the Corps' Portland District. But he added the Corps has made significant changes.

Since January, the Corps has had several additional oil spills at The Dalles and a tap water spill at Bonneville. But the agency has stepped up its response to those spills and its public notification of even very small spills, Rabe said.

After the spill, the Corps called for an investigation, and an independent panel of experts in dam operations and the environment made recommendations on how the agency could improve.

This week, the state Department of Ecology sent the Corps a letter offering to help the agency train staff on how to contain spills and improve its readiness and prevention measures, said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder.

State and federal environmental laws don't always mesh well, Redfield-Wilder said.

The Corps doesn't report to the state, although it still is responsible to uphold the Clean Water Act, she said.

"The Dalles Dam did give us a chance to evaluate their readiness program and procedures, and we do still have concerns about their maintenance and procedures," she said. "They are still under investigation ... and enforcement action is still under consideration."

But some are giving the Corps higher marks.

"They are going in a really positive direction," said Greg deBruler, spokesman for Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group based in Hood River. He met with Corps officials earlier this week to discuss what changes they have made.

Corps operations such as improving staff training, having oil spill cleanup equipment, having boats on hand at the dams and better communication should be put in place, deBruler said.

"I hope that the lesson learned from The Dalles Dam spill will help the Corps take a proactive strategy to protect all the dams in the Northwest," he said.

Some improvements to the Corps dams have been completed, others will take longer, Rabe said. But sharing information is one of the Corps' top goals, he said.

Anna King
Corps says Progress Made Since Dam Oil Spill
Tri-City Herald, April 9, 2004

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