Suit Filed Against Idaho Power for Illegal Oil Discharges through Brownlee Dam Turbines

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Idaho Hydroelectric Co. Hit With River Pollution Suit
By Juan Carlos Rodriguez

Law360 (June 25, 2021, 5:35 PM EDT) — A Northwest hydroelectric power company is illegally discharging oils, greases and other pollutants into the Snake River, environmentalists said in a new lawsuit.

Snake River Waterkeeper said in its complaint, filed Thursday in Idaho federal court, that Idaho Power Co. should be ordered to stop its discharges until it obtains a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Buck Ryan, executive director of Snake River Waterkeeper, said Idaho Power has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act by discharging oil through turbines in the Brownlee Dam into the Lower Snake River without permit coverage.

“We look forward to a resolution that compels cessation of unauthorized discharges to keep non-biodegradable lubricants out of the Snake River and protect water quality for endangered fish and safe public recreation,” Ryan said Friday.

The group’s lawsuit says the Snake River system supports fishing, is a water source for both communities and agriculture, provides recreation and powers hydroelectric dams, but is also “severely degraded by pollution” from sources including the Brownlee Dam.

In particular, the lawsuit says Idaho Power discharges oil without a permit and does not monitor and report the pollution. The dam also warms up the river’s temperature by discharging water used to cool the dam’s systems, the complaint said.

The oil can harm river creatures either through contact with their skin, feathers and fur or ingestion or inhalation, the lawsuit said. And it said warmer river temperatures harm salmon, which need cooler water to survive.

The lawsuit said the Brownlee Dam was issued a NPDES permit in 1974 for the original structure. A second “powerhouse” was constructed later and Idaho Power applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a NPDES permit for it in 1980. But the EPA never acted on the application and the dam went on operating with the new unit.

In 2018 the EPA considered a general NDPES permit for hydroelectric power facilities in Idaho, but Idaho Power opposed the move, the lawsuit said.

“Specifically, Idaho Power submitted comments noting that the state of Idaho was seeking NPDES permitting authority and expressing its preference that Idaho be allowed to draft the permit instead of EPA,” the suit said. “Since then, the state of Idaho has taken over permitting authority and has yet to issue an NPDES permit for the Powerhouse 2.”

The fact that the powerhouse isn’t covered by a NPDES permit is a violation of the Clean Water Act, the lawsuit said.

Idaho Power spokesperson Brad Bowlin said Friday the company intends to respond to the complaint.

“Idaho Power believes it is in compliance with all permitting requirements mentioned in the complaint,” Bowlin said.

Snake River Waterkeeper is represented by S. Craig Adams of S.C. Adams, Attorney at Law PLLC and Brian Knutsen and Jessica Durney of Kampmeier & Knutsen PLLC.

Counsel information for Idaho Power was not available Friday.

The case is Snake River Waterkeeper v. Idaho Power Co., number 1:21-cv-00269 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho.

–Editing by Amy Rowe.