The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to apply for a pollution discharge permit for Chief Joseph Dam, track the amount of lubricants it uses there, and study and use environmentally friendlier lubricants at the dam when feasible.

The measures are part of a settlement with Columbia Riverkeeper, which—through legal action—has won similar concessions at several other Columbia and Snake river dams. Riverkeeper says Columbia River dams routinely discharge oil and other pollutants, threatening fish, wildlife and the people who eat locally caught fish. Pollution discharge permits required under the settlement will require the Corps monitor and reduce pollution entering the Columbia.

Based on the settlement agreement filed by both Columbia Riverkeeper and the Corps, Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson dismissed Columbia Riverkeeper v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. [19-126] with prejudice on Nov. 22.

In the settlement, the Corps agreed to apply for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address any "alleged discharges from drainage sumps, unwatering sumps, drains and discharges from cooling water systems and any other discharges that the permitting authority requires."

The agreement also requires the Corps to take steps necessary for prompt permit issuance, including responding to any requests by EPA related to the permit application, or requests from the Washington state Department of Ecology related to the application or to a water quality certification required from Ecology under the Clean Water Act.

The Corps must also submit written requests every six months asking for an update on the application's status.

Lauren Goldberg, Riverkeeper's legal and program director, said in an email to Clearing Up that some language in this settlement tries to prevent the ongoing delays occurring in its 2014 settlement with the Corps, requiring the agency to apply for NPDES permits for eight Snake and Columbia river dams. While the Corps complied, EPA has yet to process those applications.

Goldberg said that's not usual. "For example, several Washington state public utility districts applied for pollution discharge permits for similar dams earlier this year and the Washington Department of Ecology has already issued public notices asking for public input as it starts work on the draft permits," she wrote.

The permitting process through the EPA has been slower. "Last year EPA completed draft pollution discharge permits for the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and asked Washington state to issue 401 water quality certifications. EPA then revoked its request. EPA has yet to provide a reason for the agency's delay," Goldberg wrote.

During the process, Ecology indicated it intended to hold federal dams to the same standard as other dams and require adherence to state water quality standards—including temperature standards—before issuing the certification (CU No. 1888 [15]). The NPDES permit process prompted Ecology's oversight.

Also in the Nov. 22 agreement with Riverkeeper, by May 31, 2020, the Corps will assess and report whether it can either begin using in-water components that do not require lubrication, or begin using an environmentally acceptable lubricant, defined as those that meet industry standards for biodegradability, toxicity and bioaccumulation potential in order to minimize impacts on the aquatic environment. Based on the assessment, the Corps agreed to develop a schedule to make the changes.

Beginning in February 2021, the Corps will also prepare annual reports that track all oils and greases delivered to the dam and account for volumes that are purchased, stored, used, recovered and disposed of during the year. An interim report with available information from 2019 will be provided by the end of May 2020.

The settlement comes five years after the Corps agreed to similar requirements for the Corps' eight lower Snake and Columbia river dams, and two years after a settlement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for lubricant spills or seepage at Grand Coulee Dam.

In addition to the lawsuit against the Corps over Chief Joseph Dam, Riverkeeper also filed a notice of intent to sue Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs in March for failing to have a pollution discharge permit at five mid-Columbia River dams.

All three PUDs have since applied for NPDES permits. Chelan County PUD agreed to a settlement before a lawsuit was filed, and has requested pollution discharge permits from Ecology for Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams. The PUD made similar commitments with regard to tracking oils and testing eco-friendlier lubricants.

Lawsuits against Douglas County PUD for Wells Dam, and Grant County PUD for Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams, were stayed after the PUDs applied for pollution discharge permits.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.