SEATTLE — Electron Hydro LLC and its chief operating officer Thom Fischer have agreed to be fined more than $1 million for major violations of the Clean Water Act as part of a consent decree federal officials announced Tuesday.
The civil fine is in connection with illegal use of thousands of yards of artificial turf put in the Puyallup River at the Electron Dam. The turf was intended to function as an underlay for a plastic liner atop it as part of a construction project.
The turf tore apart, releasing hundreds of yards of plastic turf and toxic crumb rubber into the Puyallup River in the summer of 2020.
On a visit to the river with Puyallup tribal officials just after the spill, waves of black rubber beads no bigger than a coffee ground washed up on the river’s shore and piled in pools. Ripped hunks of artificial turf hung up on riverside vegetation.
Turf has since been found at least 5,000 feet — nearly a mile — from the site and crumb rubber at least 19 miles downstream, according to Environmental Protection Agency Region 10. Recovery of all that pollution is not possible.
“Sadly, Electron Hydro’s and Mr. Fischer’s unfathomable violations will have lasting environmental impact on the Puyallup River and the fish and wildlife that rely on it,” Ed Kowalski, Director of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division in EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle said in a statement Tuesday.
Fischer could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
The consent decree also requires Electron Hydro to take several actions to redress the harms for its violations, including: a continuous cleanup effort to remove as much turf as possible; preserving in perpetuity 70 acres along the Puyallup River to provide salmon habitat, and forgoing hydroelectric generation at the dam until the company removes thousands of yards of rock it also placed in the river in October 2020.
The company also must also establish a phone line and web-based reporting tools for the public to report sightings of artificial turf.
Hydro generation has been shut down at the facility since Puget Sound Energy cancelled its power purchase agreement with Electron Hydro after the incident. The dam, sold by PSE to Electron Hydro in 2014, was built in 1904.
Artificial turf contains a wide range of toxic compounds, including plasticizers, zinc, lead, and other toxic compounds. Crumb rubber is made from waste tires that contain 6PPD, a chemical used in tire manufacturing. When 6PPD reacts with ozone, it forms 6PPD-q, which is toxic to salmon, trout, and many other fish and aquatic species. It is lethal to coho salmon.
The Puyallup River, which flows into Puget Sound, is home to Chinook salmon, bull trout, and steelhead trout, all protected under the Endangered Species Act. The river is also home to coho, chum, and pink salmon, and cutthroat trout.
The consent decree is the result of a settlement by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice negotiated with Electron Hydro and Fischer.
In November 2020, the Justice Department filed a complaint in federal court. Aftersuccessful rulings in federal court, the EPA and Justice negotiated the settlement with Electron Hydro and Fisher. The agreement is memorialized in the consent decree announced and filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington.
The consent decree is subject to a 45-day comment period and final court approval.
The Washington Department of Ecology already has fined Electron Hydro, LLC, $501,000 in June, 2021 in connection with the incident.
To avoid a trial on criminal charges brought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Electron Hydro and Fischer previously pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor violation of operating an unlawful hydraulic project. On May 5, 2023, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorenson sentenced Electron Hydro to pay $250,000 in penalties, the corporate maximum sentence, and Fischer to pay $5,000, the individual maximum. Fisher was also sentenced to 364 days in jail, suspended as long as he complies with his sentence and does not violate the law again.
In addition, Electron Hydro was ordered to pay $745,000 in restitution to the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries.
The Attorney General’s Office announced at the time that the $1 million was the largest fine and restitution paid for an environmental crime in Washington state law history.
The company put down more than 2,400 square yards of the turf. The river shifted the liner and tore up the turf the night after it was installed.
Electron Hydro did not report the incident to the state Department of Ecology or other permitting agencies. A worker at the dam reported what he had seen, first on social media then to Ecology.
The Puyallup Tribe, which has treaty-protected fishing rights in the river, has demanded the dam be taken down.