UPDATE – Buffett defers to FERC on Klamath dams’ removal

Multi-billionaire Warren Buffett told protesters May 5 it is up to federal and state regulators, not his investment company, whether utility PacifiCorp removes hydroelectric projects from the Klamath River in Oregon and California.

Indian tribal elders and commercial fishermen traveled to Omaha to protest the dams during a May 5 shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s investment firm, which recently acquired control of PacifiCorp via its MidAmerican Energy unit.

PacifiCorp is attempting to relicense the Klamath project (No. 2082) before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (HNN 5/4/07) It has faced opposition from environmentalists, tribes, and recreation and fishing groups hoping to restore fish habitat on the river.

The groups sued PacifiCorp May 2, claiming two of the dams 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 project in Oregon and northern California.

Two speakers who were allowed into the gala shareholders meeting called on PacifiCorp to remove the dams. The criticism marked a rare call for Buffett, lauded for his charitable giving and vigorous advocacy of good corporate governance, to do more to push for societal and environmental change.

Separately, Buffett said it was beyond his power to compel PacifiCorp to remove the dams.

“We will not make the determination in the end,” Buffett said. “That is entirely a question for FERC and the state commissions… PacifiCorp will do exactly what they say.”

Buffett himself controls one-third of Berkshire’s voting power. That alone means any shareholder resolution against his will would face a large if not insurmountable hurdle.

Lawsuit blames PacifiCorp river management for algae blooms

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.

A PacifiCorp spokesman said the utility has been working with 26 interested parties to resolve concerns, but had no further comment on the lawsuit.

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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