U.S. tribes, fishermen sue PacifiCorp over Klamath River dams

Environmentalists, commercial fishermen, and Indian tribes sued Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp May 2, claiming two of its dams on the Klamath River are killing salmon and causing human health hazards.

The lawsuit, led by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Yurok and Karuk tribes, asks a federal court to force PacifiCorp to clean up toxic algae blooms in the reservoirs behind the Iron Gate and Copco dams, part of the 161.338-MW Klamath hydroelectric project in Oregon and northern California.

Other plaintiffs include river recreation business owners and the Klamath Riverkeeper group.

The lawsuit alleges annual algae blooms occur because PacifiCorp improperly controls the intake and release of water, allowing it to stagnate as temperatures in the reservoirs rise above natural levels. The algae generate a deadly liver toxin that threatens the fishery and the health of tribal medicine men who bathe in the river during rituals, said co-counsel Joseph Cotchett of Cotchett Pitre &McCarthy.

The dams “are having a devastating impact on the economies and cultures of Native Americans and others who depend on the Klamath River,” Kennedy, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said.

PacifiCorp, which recently was acquired by a unit of investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, is attempting to relicense the Klamath project (No. 2082) before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (HNN 3/28/07) A spokesman said the utility has been working with 26 interested parties to resolve concerns, but had no further comment on the lawsuit.

Tribes, fishermen to confront shareholders meeting

The lawsuit’s filing coincides with a pilgrimage by tribal elders and commercial fishermen to Omaha, Neb., May 3-5 to protest the dams during a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

Earlier this year, PacifiCorp traded barbs with the California Energy Commission. An independent analysis for PacifiCorp found a CEC study to be full of errors that skewed Klamath project cost estimates in favor of removing the dams. The CEC countered that additional figures provided by PacifiCorp merely supported its contention that decommissioning the project would be less costly than relicensing it and installing fish ladders.

Dam removal advocates hope to catch PacifiCorp between expensive fish passage requirements, imposed by the fish agencies of the Interior and Commerce departments, and the economic study that says it would be cheaper to tear out dams than to comply with the costly fish agency mandates.

Rejecting less costly mitigation proposals by PacifiCorp, the fish agencies mandated in January the construction of multi-million-dollar upstream and downstream fish passage at the project’s 18-MW Iron Gate, 20-MW Copco 1, 27-MW Copco 2, and 90.338-MW J.C. Boyle developments. The fishway prescriptions, which FERC must include in a relicense without modification, are intended to restore hundreds of miles of historic salmon and steelhead habitat.

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