In the end, it's all about information.
A legal settlement reached Monday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, regarding pollutants that flow into the Columbia River from a series of Corps-operated dams, is all about gleaning information that can help protect the public and help protect the waterway that largely defines this region. Deemed by some as "groundbreaking," the agreement will require the Corps, for the first time, to disclose statistics about those pollutants and to apply for pollution permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"For years, the Army Corps has allowed harmful oil pollution to flow into the Columbia and Snake rivers, and finally that will stop," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "With the dams coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act, we will see an end to toxic discharges and chronic seepage of pollutants that have been harming our communities."
Not that everybody is happy about the development. The settlement found critics in those who worry that environmental concerns are overriding the economic health of the region. Hydroelectric power in the Northwest had its genesis with a Spokane dam built in 1885, and dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers long have blessed the area with inexpensive and reliable electricity. Now, naysayers fear that the ultimate goal of environmentalists is to shut down those dams as regulations chip away at the operational efficiency of the structures.
Maintaining a balance between those competing interests will remain a paramount concern. But in order to strike that balance, information is required. The public should be aware of what pollutants are entering the river in order to make informed decisions and in order to push regulators to act in the best interest of the people.
"Under the letter of the law, they have been engaged in unpermitted discharge for years," Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, said of the Corps of Engineers. "They should have long ago said, 'This is how much we're discharging. Here are the environmental impacts.' "
That is a reasonable demand. Under the agreement, the Corps will be required to disclose spills such as a 2012 leak that released 1,500 gallons of oil from its Ice Harbor dam into the Snake River near Pasco. That dam is one of eight operated by the Corps along the Columbia and Snake rivers and, as The Associated Press reported, "The eight dams use turbines that have shafts and hubs filled with oil or other lubricants. The oil leaks to the surface, along with oil from drainage sumps, transformers and wickets that control water flow."
Such seepage by itself will not soil a river that extends into seven states and has a drainage basin roughly the size of France, but tests in recent years have discovered levels of toxins in Columbia River fish that are deemed unsafe for humans.
The federal government recently has taken a more aggressive approach to regulating energy, from restrictions on fracking for oil to guidelines for coal-fired electrical plants, and such moves typically are met with concerns about their economic impact. These concerns are understandable, as reliable and affordable energy is a crucial linchpin in a smoothly running economy.
In weighing those concerns, the public must first be provided with accurate and complete information. The agreement reached this week is a step in that direction.