DEQ: Army Corps should pay to clean Bonneville Dam toxins

Environment

The Army Corps of Engineers says it isn't responsible for the cost of toxin removal at the Bonneville Dam. The DEQ says otherwise.

The Bonneville Lock & Dam on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as seen on the US Army Corps of Engineers website, September 9, 2019

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is suing the U.S. Army and the Army Corps of Engineers over their refusal to cover the cost of cleaning hazardous substances on Bradford Island, at the Bonneville Dam. 

In the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 19, the DEQ says the Army and Army Corps of Engineers are the current owners and operators of Bradford Island and the Bonneville Dam and are required under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the Oregon Cleanup Law to cover any expenses incurred by the removal and treatment of hazardous substances. 

The DEQ says from 1942 until 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers used the east end of the island as a landfill. They claim they threw electrical equipment and other debris directly into the Columbia River. Some of this equipment contained polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, which are highly toxic, do not break down easily, and can be stored in the bodies of fish.

The lawsuit says toxins in the river are still impacting marine life. Samples taken in 2011 of sediments, clams, and smallmouth bass show PCB concentrations are still too high to protect fish living nearby and people who eat the fish, the DEQ says. 

The DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers entered an agreement on Feb. 18, 1998 that stated the Army Corps of Engineers would reimburse the DEQ for investigating and cleaning up hazardous substances at the former Bradford Island landfill and Bonneville Lock and Dam. The agreement remained in effect until it was terminated on Oct. 4, 2019.

In a letter sent July 31, 2020 to the DEQ, the Army Corps of Engineers claimed that CERCLA “did not, and do not allow for the cost reimbursement arrangements set forth in the agreement.” 

The Corps then argued that it was never legally permitted to pay the DEQ’s cost of cleanup and is seeking nearly $769,000 in repayment from the department. 

In the lawsuit, the DEQ argues the Army Corps of Engineers was in fact liable for these costs and that the DEQ was not overpaid. They are also asking the Corps to pay more than $71,000 for clean-up costs that have accrued since the agreement between the two parties ended in October 2019. The DEQ says laws still hold the Corps responsible for the cost of hazardous substance removal, whether or not the agreement is in effect. 

The DEQ says under Oregon law they can investigate and remove hazards to public health and the environment and recover remedial costs. They also say CERCLA, a federal law, states that the owner and operator of a facility is liable for all costs of hazardous substance removal. 

Portland District Corps of Engineers spokesperson John Morgan said they are aware of the lawsuit. 

“While the Corps does not comment on pending litigation, we value the role the technical advisory group, which includes representatives from the States of Oregon and Washington, area Tribes, the EPA and US Fish & Wildlife Service has played in supporting the Corps’ cleanup of Bradford Island. The Corps takes environmental protection seriously and is continuing its investigation and remedial action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),” Morgan said in a statement. 

In an email to KOIN 6 News, the Oregon DEQ noted that on Oct. 10, 2019, after the agreement between the DEQ and Army Corps of Engineers had been terminated, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking for Bradford Island to be placed on the National Priorities List. If their request is approved, Bradford Island would eventually become a Superfund site. 

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