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Puyallup tribe files federal suit against Electron Dam, citing pollution, fish kills

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the owners and operators of the Electron Dam, alleging ongoing violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Spring chinook, bull trout and steelhead in the Puyallup River are protected under the ESA, but the more than 100-year-old Electron Dam has for years been a known fish killer on the river, the tribe stated in its suit.

During a routine operation in July 2020, operators of the dam “stranded, suffocated and pulverized thousands of adults and juvenile fish,” according to a statement from the tribe issued Wednesday. That event was in addition to thousands of fish killed in the flume, fore bay and turbines of the dam in routine operations every year, the suit alleged.

The fish kill happened the same month that the dam’s owners deliberately placed thousands of square yards of artificial turf in the river without a permit as part of a construction project.

Pieces of the turf and its rubber crumbs washed down the entire length of the river below the dam and into Commencement Bay. Five months later, large pieces of turf are still in the river, and rubber crumbs and fragments of plastic grass are “clearly visible on the shorelines and vegetation” of the Puyallup, according to a statement from the tribal council Wednesday.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District against Electron Hydro, LLC, Thom A. Fischer, and Tollhouse Energy Company, the owners and operators of the dam. In addition to the fish kills and turf spill, the suit stated the dam’s effect on river flows and blockage of migrating fish also are killing protected species.

The fish ladder at the dam has been inoperable during most of the chinook run in 2020, according to the tribe.

“It is time for the dam to go,” the Puyallup Tribal Council stated in a news release about the suit Wednesday. “Its legacy will be one of dead fish and damage to the ecology of this beautiful place we all live in.”

Chinook salmon are present in the river at the project site at least from April through October, according to the suit. Historically the river was home to as many as 42,000 chinook salmon, but today the number of chinook, including early spring returns to the White River, a tributary of the Puyallup, is estimated at only 1,300 fish.

Spring chinook are prize food for southern resident killer whales, which are also an endangered species. Lack of adequate chinook salmon is one of the biggest threats to their survival.

The dam’s owners do not have a permit authorizing the take, or killing, of any of the endangered species in the river.

Owners of the dam did not respond to requests for comment about the suit.

The dam’s owners have stated they will oppose any effort to remove the dam, which used to provide electricity to about 20,000 customers.

Puget Sound Energy canceled its power purchase contract with the dam’s owners because of violations of environmental laws and permits. PSE has not taken power from the dam since July.

The suit asks the court to order Electron’s operators to stop diverting water – and the fish in it – from the river before obtaining permits to do so from federal agencies.

The tribe also asked the court to order Electron to stop killing fish with a rock dam it has placed in the river and its inoperable fish ladder, in addition to any other relief the court deems.

Two other cases have been brought against the dam’s owners, one by the nonprofit American Whitewater and the other by the US Justice Department, for violations of the Clean Water Act.

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