Army Corps Polluting Columbia Basin Rivers

Published August 1, 2003

The rainbow colors dancing on the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River paint an irrefutable picture.

Trailing 200 feet downstream from the Bonneville Dam, the vibrant colors betray an ever-replenishing oil spill emanating from the inner workings of the dam. Lesser spills than this have led to stiff penalties and heavy fines against private industry.

But in this case, the offending dam is owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Washington and Oregon state officials are fuming … because they can’t do anything about it.

National Security At Issue?

The Corps has been frequently accused of trampling private citizens’ rights in enforcing its own environmental protection rules. Yet it refuses to fix the polluting dam, and refuses to submit to state environmental protection laws.

According to the Seattle Times, Oregon and Washington officials have issued the Corps four separate violation notices for the Bonneville Dam. The Corps says it has no intention of honoring the notices. According to the Corps, the states have no authority to question what occurs in a federal dam. Moreover, the Corps has refused to share information with the states, alleging that sharing such information will expose the dams to terrorism threats.

“I guess the standoff gives fresh meaning to the phrase ‘national security leaks,'” deadpanned Southern Oregon University professor Les AuCoin.

“The Corps is not required to follow state regulatory controls over the operation of generators, turbines, galleries, sumps, and pumping operations within our federal facilities,” claimed Brigadier General David Fastabend in a March 31 letter to Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Defying the Law

Responded AuCoin, “The Corps of Engineers may not be a private business, but it’s still subject to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Trouble is, no one is forcing it to comply with the law.”

Oil can be toxic to fish and wildlife, and state officials argue repeated oil spills threaten endangered salmon. However, availing itself of an argument it frequently derides when presented by private citizens, the Corps asserts its continual spills are harmless because the river dilutes the oil before it can harm the fish.

“Even a small amount of oil escaping over a long time adds up to a lot of oil,” responded Chris Kaufman of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Private citizens can be forgiven for crying “hypocrisy,” according to spill responder Ron Holcomb, who works for Washington’s Department of Ecology. “There’s no question, had this been a private industry, there would have been significant financial penalties issued for those spills, and the penalties would be continuing.”


What’s worse, according to AuCoin, is that “state officials have found a paper trail showing that workers at the Bonneville Dam had illegally used soaplike compounds to mask the leaks. The compounds make the oil invisible to people–advantage Corps of Engineers. Unfortunately, they may make the oil more toxic–disadvantage, endangered fish.

“National security claims are a good way to cover up the misdeeds of government,” observed AuCoin. However, “a wise man once said, ‘A basic principle of democracy is that transparency, not opaqueness, is the public’s first safeguard against scoundrels and fools.'”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].