A Washington hydroelectric company will contribute more than $400,000 to water quality and salmon habitat improvements, and pay $100,200 in fines, for a summer 2020 spill of used athletic field turf bits into the Puyallup River.
In late July 2020, Electron Hydro was working to update a more than 100-year-old dam. A former employee alerted the public via social media that the company had used old artificial turf, discarded at a nearby rock quarry, to line the riverbed.
The turf and its crumb rubber material are toxic when ingested by fish and other aquatic life. The Puyallup is home to many protected endangered species: steelhead, bull trout and Chinook, a critical food source for endangered southern resident orcas.
The company did not inform regulators of the pollution discharge for days, according to a consultant’s report.
Pierce County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop-work order on the company’s construction project that said “the use of astro-turf in a river system where it can break down and discharge potential toxins into the water is not considered a suitable material.”
About 617 square yards of turf, and up to six cubic yards of crumb rubber — each piece the size of a large coffee ground — were initially released downstream, according to the state Department of Ecology.
The Puyallup Tribe has since mapped the distribution of the artificial turf debris tracking them almost all the way to Commencement Bay in Tacoma, nearly 40 miles downstream.
Electron Hydro appealed Ecology’s initial penalty of $501,000 in July 2021. The whole fine would’ve been paid into the state’s Coastal Protection Fund, which provides grants to public agencies and tribes for water quality restoration projects. Instead, under a settlement signed earlier this month, more than $400,000 of it will go into an escrow account to be invested back into the Puyallup watershed.
The settlement requires Electron to submit a project to Ecology for review within six months and work with a fish habitat enhancement organization, regional stakeholders and the Puyallup Tribe.
Electron Hydro Chief Operating Officer Thom Fischer said the company is “diligently working on moving forward.”
“We’re really happy that the bulk of the money we’re spending is going toward improvements to the habitat of the river,” he said.
The Electron Hydropower Project begins in the pristine upper reaches of the Puyallup River about six miles west of Mt. Rainier National Park. Over the years, the 10-foot-high wooden dam, about 200 feet long, diverted water into a 10-mile-long wooden flume conveying water to the dam’s powerhouse. It was known to entrap and kill fish at the dam.
Dam operators have faced a litany of legal challenges over the years for pollution and killing fish; including alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, and the state’s Water Pollution Control Act, Shoreline Management Act and the Pierce County Code.
Testing by the University of Washington-Tacoma Center for Urban Waters indicated the turf and crumb rubber contained chemicals found in tires, including one that is “extremely toxic” to coho salmon, according to documents filed in Pierce County Superior Court.
When Ecology first levied a fine against the company, Bill Sterud, chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, told The Seattle Times “the Puyallup Tribe is not going to waver for one moment in taking care of our fish.”
“Our fish can’t talk for themselves. We have to talk for our fish,” he said.