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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Conditions eased for dam license

From staff reports

The U.S. Forest Service has dropped some of the dam-relicensing conditions that outraged many Pend Oreille County residents four years ago.

The agency says it will not require the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District to build campgrounds, buy land for wildlife habitat or do some of the wild-life work and water-quality monitoring that the Forest Service once had proposed as conditions for continuing to operate Box Canyon Dam.

The proposal created a backlash among many in the community, with the PUD warning of quadrupling electricity rates and a local paper mill predicting 200 layoffs if rates were driven up.

“Many of the eliminated elements have been covered by the terms and conditions of other agencies” that are weighing in on the dam-relicensing process, Colville National Forest supervisor Rick Brazell said in a written statement issued by e-mail after business hours on Friday. “Others were dropped after considering the economic impacts.”

In 2002, the agency dropped another requirement that had especially galled residents of the sparsely populated county: a 30-mile paved bike trail that the PUD said would cost ratepayers $3 million to construct. That trail was to make up for nonmotorized recreational opportunities – like rafting – that were lost when the dam was built in 1952.

Other conditions for relicensing the dam were submitted by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Ecology, Environmental Protection Agency and the Kalispel Tribe, whose reservation abuts the Box Canyon reservoir and was reduced in size by the dam. PUD commissioners and other county officials warned in 2001 that the conditions were so onerous they would leave the county in economic ruin.

“What you are seeing is legal extortion, nothing less,” one former commissioner told an angry crowd that year.

The Forest Service statement says that by issuing their final conditions, the agencies have cleared the way for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a new 30- to 50-year license for the Pend Oreille River dam. However, the PUD or other entities involved in the contentious relicensing process may appeal conditions of the license, further delaying a process that has already taken 10 years and cost the PUD $9.8 million, according to its Web page.

Details of the other agencies’ final conditions were not available over the weekend. The agencies’ initial lists of requirements included fish ladders for endangered bull trout and other species, a condition the PUD said would cost $10 million to $25 million. Other requests were more modest, like an 18-foot boat for state biologists who study Pend Oreille River fish.

Among the initial conditions from the Interior Department: 750 acres for wildlife and construction of a recreational center on the Kalispel reservation, portions of which were flooded by the dam.

The PUD must switch to more environmentally friendly turbines, but the Forest Service statement said that the state Department of Ecology will provide $30 million for that work. The statement says the dam will produce an additional $1 million worth of electricity after the change.

The PUD built Box Canyon Dam in 1952, giving county residents some of the lowest electrical rates anywhere. Like all non-federal hydroelectric dams, it operates on a 50-year license administered by the FERC.

Under federal law, agencies must set conditions designed to help offset the environmental losses and social changes caused by the dams. Among the conditions agreed to by Avista Utilities when it relicensed its Clark Fork River dams, for instance, was to spend $225 million over 45 years to help endangered bull trout. Avista now is working to relicense its Spokane River dams.

Despite the potential impact, dam relicensing often goes unnoticed, except by a few environmentalists, biologists and river-runners.

That has not been the case in Pend Oreille County, where officials for the PUD and its biggest customer began a public relations campaign in 2001 to rally the utility’s 7,000 customers against the federal regulatory agencies.

In estimates that some federal officials said were unverifiable and others said were vastly overstated, the PUD said in 2001 it would have to spend $300 million to $500 million over 50 years to meet all the conditions. PUD commissioners warned that electricity rates could quadruple.

Ponderay Newsprint warned that any rate increase would force the mill to close, putting 200 people out of work. The paper mill is the county’s largest private employer and consumes 80 percent of the power sold by the PUD.

The warnings sparked alarm and anger in a county that perpetually ranks among the state’s worst for unemployment and among the lowest for household income. And that was exactly the reaction that was hoped for by officials at the PUD and the paper mill.

“I encourage you to get mad and do what needs to be done, because we are,” Bill Meany, vice president of Ponderay Newsprint, told the crowd at a 2001 Cusick hearing that was attended by half the town.

Of the agencies suggesting new conditions for the license, only the Forest Service sent representatives to that meeting and others in Newport and Metaline Falls. One towering forester joked that he felt a foot shorter after responding to angry accusations.

The dam, which backs up about 56 miles of the river, caused a stir on Capitol Hill, too. Conservative members of Congress cited it as proof that the relicensing process needed to be reformed.

And while Congress has not approved industry-supported changes championed by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the Interior Department has since changed its process for demanding changes to mirror elements of Craig’s bill, The Spokesman-Review has previously reported.

The PUD has asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to reconsider the Box Canyon conditions in light of the department’s new policies. So far, the PUD Web page states, there has been no response.

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