Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. — 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 Corps also will apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for pollution permits, something the Corps has never done for the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland 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.
The settlement reflects the recent tack of the EPA regulating the environmental impacts of energy. The agency recently came up with regulations of mountaintop removal for coal and fracking for oil and gas.
As part of the settlement, the Corps admits no wrongdoing but will pay $143,000 in attorneys' fees. The consolidated cases were dismissed.
"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 indicated the agreement applies to the eight dams in question, but he 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 EPA, a responsibility the agency has sought but never obtained. EPA representatives did not immediately return messages or emails seeking comment.
The EPA had the authority to regulate the dams' pollution before the settlement, but it could not compel the Corps to file for a pollution permit. The Corps also will be forced to switch to a biodegradable lubricant for its dam machinery if an internal study finds it financially feasible.
The Corps isn't just a polluter, however. It also is a regulator of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The act grants the Corps the authority to issue permits for the discharge of materials excavated from or put into U.S. waterways.
"Under the letter of the law, they have been engaged in unpermitted discharge for years," said Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. "They should have long ago said, 'This is how much we're discharging. Here are the environmental impacts.'"
Monday's settlement will force the Corps' hand. To discharge pollutants into waterways, the polluters must obtain permission from state and federal governments. Before the settlement, the EPA knew about the unpermitted discharges from the dams, but 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.
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