The cost of monitoring, analyzing and reporting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency for eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers would create significant financial impacts to BPA and the region's electric customers, Bonneville said in comments.

If finalized as proposed, Bonneville estimates an additional six full-time employees would be needed to do the work, cost $3 million in the first year, and between $400,000 and $600,000 per year after, according to the comment letter from Kieran Connelly, the agency's VP of generation and asset management. Connelly said the proposed requirements are "overly burdensome" and costly, and asked EPA to reduce the number of locations and frequency of monitoring.

Bonneville was among 14 groups and entities to comment on draft permits during the public comment period from March 18 to May 4.

In its comment, PNGC Power pointed out the significance of the draft permits, noting, "These proposed discharge permits are both regionally significant and nationally precedent-setting. Notably, they are the first NPDES permits in the United States to be issued for federal hydroelectric generating facilities."

PNGC is a Portland-based electric generation and transmission cooperative owned by 15 Northwest electric distribution cooperatives with service territories in seven Western states, and its members rely heavily on Bonneville hydropower.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers applied for the permits from EPA as part of a U.S. District Court settlement agreement with Columbia Riverkeeper, which had sued the agency for discharging oil and other pollutants from the eight dams. The Corps also agreed to investigate switching to environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs), and to use them if feasible; and to account for and reduce oil pollution from the dams while state and federal agencies developed the permits.

The court settlement's requirement for NPDES permits at the eight dams triggered EPA's request for water quality certifications by the Washington Department of Ecology and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

"We are in the process of evaluating these [NPDES] comments, the Columbia River temperature [total maximum daily load] issued on May 18, 2020, the final 401 certifications from Washington Department of Ecology, and 401 objection letter from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality," said an email from Jenny Wu, an environmental engineer in EPA Region 10's NPDES permits section.

Proponents of hydropower—both regional and national—weighed in to agree with BPA that the proposed permits are overly burdensome, and in some areas overstep EPA's authority by requiring a plan and annual reports for cooling water intake structures, which have not historically been required of hydroelectric facilities.

But Columbia Riverkeeper and Snake River Waterkeeper said the draft permits don't go far enough to ensure compliance with temperature standards for the Columbia River, and asked EPA to include temperature impacts caused by pooling of water in reservoirs as well as from cooling water structures in the permits.

In a joint comment, the two environmental groups wrote that hydroelectric facilities discharge pollution from point sources, and yet most states have failed to regulate hydroelectric facilities under federal Clean Water Act requirements.

"Pollution discharges from the Dams contribute to the pollution crisis on the Columbia River," stated the comment, signed by Riverkeeper's legal and program director, Lauren Goldberg, and Waterkeeper Executive Director F.S. "Buck" Ryan. "Without NPDES permits, the Corps has failed to monitor, report, and reduce pollution discharges pursuant to the [Clean Water Act] and state and federal implementing rules for decades."

The two groups asked EPA to increase the frequency and reporting requirements for EAL plans, require the use of EALs as a technology-based effluent, and ensure EPA oversight of the lubricants' selection and use. They also asked EPA to include temperature effluent limits for cooling water discharges, and incorporate temperature effluent limits for discharges. "Commenters urge EPA to evaluate and include effluent limits and permit conditions that address all of the heat pollution that the Dams add to the rivers," the letter stated.

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation commented that the permits must be coordinated with EPA's issuance of TMDLs for temperature and water quality certifications from Washington and Oregon. Signed by Phil Rigdon, superintendent of the Yakama Nation's Department of Natural Resources, the comment letter also noted that consultation with the Yakama Nation has not yet occurred, and urged EPA to delay issuing final NPDES permits until consultation with the tribe, TMDL temperature plans and water quality certifications are complete.

The tribe also wrote that the permits must meet state water quality standards for temperature, and should include suggested modifications to mitigate impacts such as drawing down reservoirs, increasing summer flows, "and ultimately transitioning away from dependency on hydropower and obstruction of the Columbia River."

And the Yakama Nation asked EPA to address the temperature issues at the eight dams to meet state water quality standards. "At a minimum, the draft NPDES permits must include conditions to cover oil spills (large and small), facility-wide storm water contamination, temperature, entrainment, and migration issues," the comment stated. Additionally, Rigdon wrote, the permits should cover water behind dams, water being spilled over dams, water used only for hydroelectric generation and water used only for navigation.

Hydropower proponents urged EPA to reduce the burden of some requirements, and eliminate some—especially a provision in the Clean Water Act requiring development of a cooling water intake structure plan and annual report, previously not required of hydroelectric facilities.

The American Public Power Association wrote that Congress and the EPA never considered applying Clean Water Act Section 316(b) to hydroelectric facilities because they divert only small quantities of water for cooling purposes. "Interpreting Section 316(b) to apply to hydroelectric facilities would be a significant expansion of EPA's regulatory jurisdiction and would duplicate other federal and state requirements," the association's comment stated.

PNGC Power, and many other hydroelectric proponents, agreed. "[I]f EPA is going to create precedent and impose new 316(b) permitting conditions on hydroelectric facilities, the agency should go through a formal national rulemaking process with full notice and public comment," wrote PNGC's vice present of government affairs and policy, Ashley Slater.

Slater's comment—reiterated by the Public Power Council, Northwest RiverPartners, APPA, Cowlitz County PUD, Bureau of Reclamation, BPA, Edison Electric Institute, National Hydropower Association and Utility Water Act Group—suggested removing the condition from the NPDES permits. "The imposition of Section 316(b) on hydroelectric facilities is a departure from EPA's 2014 rulemaking, where EPA clearly did not intend for the rule to apply to these facilities," she wrote.

Several of the comments also called other requirements to monitor for several pollutants "unduly burdensome," and noted they could interfere with other requirements and agreements for operating the dams.

"EPA's own analyses, as well as measurements and analysis in accordance with other reporting mandates, indicate that processes at these federal facilities and the resulting effluent have little to no impact" on several key parameters, commented Scott Simms, PPC executive director.

"Monitoring and reporting for these is burdensome and should be excluded from the final permits," he continued. "Monitoring and reporting for oil and grease should be practicable and reasonable, and EPA should work with the Corps to determine appropriate conditions for these."

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.