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Puyallup River, Electron Dam
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Puyallup River filled with debris from artificial turf at construction site

A piece of the artificial turf in the Puyallup River. (Courtesy of Puyallup Tribe)

Shredded pieces of artificial turf in the Puyallup River may have flowed all the way to the Puget Sound after they were accidentally ripped up from a construction site at the Electron Dam near Eatonville.

And nearly 1,800 square yards of the turf still lie intact on the riverbed at the site, where they were used , as cushioning for heavy plastic material by Electron Hydro, LLC, which owns and operates the dam. Lisa Anderson, environmental attorney for the Puyallup Tribe, said the company never had permission to use the turf in the first place.

The July accident saw about 600 square yards of the turf crumbling into coffee-ground-sized pieces of rubber and, scientists believe, traveling downstream all the way to Commencement Bay in Tacoma.

Russ Ladley, fisheries director for the Puyallup Tribe, said because of their small size, these pieces are travel quickly and are very difficult to clean up.

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“The big concern now is, what is this crum rubber doing to the food chain, to the food web?” Ladley asked. “We know, based on the literature, that this could be around a long, long time, and it’s almost impossible to clean up, so it’s a huge challenge.”

He worries about how the rubber could impact salmon on their migration this fall. Chinook salmon are already facing population decline, which in turn is one reason why the Southern Resident orcas — which mainly eat Chinook — are endangered.

“It’s a gut punch. So many groups — the tribe, the state, volunteer groups, nonprofit organizations, the county — we’re all working actively on fisheries restoration, and we work on these grants, on habitat enhancement. And then to see a mistake like this come along — it’s just heartbreaking,” Ladley said. “It’s so unnecessary, and the effects can be so profound. We just don’t know what all the effects are going to be at this time.”

Samples of the rubber are currently being analyzed by scientists at the University of Washington to determine what its effects could be on animals in the river.

He said he believes the rubber material is still leeching out from the turf that remains on the riverbed.

“It’s not just in one line — it’s almost like the rings on the tree … on the sandbar, as the river has been dropping over the course of the summer, there is this fresh line of what we call ‘coffee grounds’ very clearly visible, suggesting that material is still leeching out from all the astro-turf,” he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Pierce County sent stop-work orders to Electron Hydro, LLC, which owns the dam, in early August.

Electron Hydro said it is “cooperating with the resource agencies to re-start and provide material recovery and impact restoration as directed.”

“The project will continue when the issues are satisfied,” the hydropower company stated in an email. “Electron is committed to producing clean energy and restoring Puyallup River fisheries.”

Electron also noted that it had “recently completed a Chinook acclimation and rearing pond on site for use by the Puyallup Tribe Fisheries Department, from which the Tribe released approximately 320,000 Chinook smolt this past spring.”

Anderson said the company has a very narrow work window of approximately two more weeks to clean up the turf before the weather starts causing heavier river flows, which could disintegrate and distribute the remaining rubber. The end of the fish window — when salmon begin their migration through the river to spawn — is also approaching.

“We’re running out of time … so that’s our concern. Get it done, get the material out, now,” she said. “Fix it. It doesn’t mean that they get to prioritize their continued construction of the dam. Just make it so that site is safe, that [the turf] is not going to wash downstream, and get that stuff out of the river before that work window closes.”

“We just see this as, only part of the disaster has happened so far, because the vast majority of the material is still in the active river channel,” Ladley said.

Anderson said the company got the pieces of turf from a disposal site near the Puyallup River, where they had been sitting for years.

“Who goes to a roadside dump site for old turf and puts it in the river? The permitting processes — the [Army] Corps [of Engineers] and the county want to know what materials you’re using. I mean, this was clearly not a disclosed and anticipated material that was going in the water,” Anderson said.

She said the idea of taking legal action is not being ruled out.

“There is significant damage to the tribe’s natural resources that it depends on, so we’re examining all that,” she said. “Nothing is a foregone conclusion at this point.”

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