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Study Doubts Some Corps Findings on Dams

by Les Blumenthal
Tri-City Herald, July 26, 2000

Officials may have underestimated effect of breaching

WASHINGTON -- The Army Corps of Engineers may have underestimated the impact on air quality in the region if four Snake River dams were breached to restore salmon runs and the electricity they generated were replaced by power from coal or natural gas fueled turbines, a congressional study concluded Tuesday.

The General Accounting Office, Congress's bipartisan investigative arm, also suggested the Corps might have underestimated the cost of replacing a transportation system that uses barges to carry grain downstream with trucks and trains.

The study, requested by two Republican senators, Slade Gorton of Washington and Gordon Smith of Oregon, noted the Corps probably was correct in estimating the cost of replacing the electricity from the dams if they were breached at $245 million.

"In our view, the Corps' analysis and presentation of the effects of breaching on electricity costs is reasonable," the GAO said. "However, we could not determine the reasonableness of the Corps' estimated effects on transportation costs and air quality."

The four-year, $22 million environmental impact study of dam breaching, released by the Corps in December, looked at the possibility of breaching the four dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- and several other alternatives to rebuild the dwindling Snake River salmon populations. It came up with no recommendation on the best way to proceed.

The GAO said the Corps failed to adequately consider the effect on air quality if new electric generating plants were built to replace the dams.

"Estimates of increased air emissions from replacement power did not consider the effect on nearby communities," the GAO said, adding the Environmental Protection Agency believes the Corps should have developed models to assess compliance with state and local air standards.

The GAO said air quality also could be affected by pollutants from trucks needed to haul grain if barge traffic were eliminated by breaching the dams, and from possible windblown contamination, including heavy metals and possibly DDT, from the sediments that would be exposed if the dams were eliminated.

The Corps estimated the net increase in shipping costs if the dams were breached would be $21 million annually over 100 years, but the GAO said the Corps did not pay enough attention to improvements to highways, railroads and storage facilities that may be needed. The Corps estimated those infrastructure improvements could cost $532 million.

"However, the Corps assumed that these infrastructure improvements would be made without affecting the transportation cost estimate," the GAO said. "The Corps did not sufficiently analyze the validity of this assumption or measure the sensitivity of the transportation estimate to this assumption."

The GAO report comes on the heals of another released in late June by the Independent Economic Analysis Board that calls into question the Corps' work on the economic end of its lower Snake study.

While crediting the agency with a "balanced professional quality," the review board said, "some estimates ... were woefully imprecise." The Corps is working on another draft.

For instance, the board said the Corps had not fully accounted for the likelihood of increased freight rates if railroads no longer face barge competition. And the board told the Corps it needed "more clarity" in reporting how many fish would return with certain dam improvements. It also called the range of river recreation values "unrealistic."

Gorton, a leading critic of dam breaching, said the GAO confirmed his worst fears.

"We've known all along that breaching the dams would ruin Eastern Washington's way of life, but now it looks as if the environmental impacts are greater than we previously thought," Gorton said in a statement. "The study reveals that the Corps has understated the true impacts of dam breaching on the environment and our transportation costs."

Gorton said the Corps analysis was obviously incomplete and that more work needed to be done.

"I would hope that persons on all sides of the dam breaching issue would agree that the negative impact on the environment potentially caused by breaching the dams should be carefully reviewed," the senator said.

Bill Arthur, head of the Northwest regional office of the Sierra Club in Seattle, however, said the GAO was providing just another smokescreen to avoid breaching the dams.

"We continue to come up with creative ways to delay," he said.

Arthur said the electricity lost if the dams were breached, enough to supply a city the size of Seattle, could be replaced by energy conservation programs and the development of such renewable resources as wind and solar power.

"The notion you have to go to combustion turbines is the Corps' latest techno-fantasy," he said.

As for transportation costs, Arthur said barge operators, which have a virtual monopoly on grain transport, did not pay to have the current river system of dams and reservoirs installed and do not pay maintenance costs.

"The current system is enormously subsidized," Arthur said, suggesting those subsidies could be used to help launch truck and rail service.

Les Blumenthal Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Study Doubts Some Corps Findings on Dams
Tri-City Herald, July 26, 2000

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