PORTLAND, OREGON – For the first time in its history, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams are sending into waterways in a groundbreaking legal settlement that could have broad implications for the Corps’ hundreds of dams nationwide.
The Corps announced in a settlement Monday that it will immediately notify the conservation group that filed the lawsuit of any oil spills among its eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.
The settlement filed in U.S. District Court ends the year-old consolidated lawsuit by the conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, which said the Corps violated the Clean Water Act with unmonitored, unpermitted oil discharges from the eight hydroelectric dams.
No one outside the Corps knows how much pollution is being flushed into waterways every day. The agency doesn’t have to track it and, before Monday, no one with sufficient authority compelled them to do so.
As part of the settlement, the Corps admits no wrongdoing.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director. “There have been several large, high-profile spills in the last decade that made it harder for them to ignore this issue of oil on the river.”
The Corps’ Northwest and national offices on Monday referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, whose attorneys negotiated the settlement. Justice Department attorney Wyn Hornbuckle did not immediately respond to follow-up questions concerning the national impact of the deal.
The settlement will allow oversight of the dams by the Environmental Protection Agency, a responsibility the agency has sought but never obtained. EPA representatives did not immediately return messages or emails seeking comment.
Before Monday’s settlement, the Corps said in letters to state agencies that it is not accountable to the EPA.
The Corps argued in the same letters that disclosing the mechanical workings of the dams as part of an oil-discharge summary could compromise their security.
Previously, the Corps had to report spills but not day-to-day pollution. Now, the Corps will have to monitor day-to-day pollution as well.
Nationally, the settlement could force all unpermitted dams to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits from the EPA.