As lawsuits mount, government looks into removing Electron Dam

Jan 10, 2021, 8:32 AM

Puyallup River, Electron Dam, Puyallup Tribe...

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

(Courtesy of Puyallup Tribe)

It’s a new year, and with that year will likely come some of the groundwork for removing the Electron Dam on the Puyallup River.

Just last week, the Puyallup Tribe announced it was suing the owner of the dam, Electron Hydro, LLC, over a long list of environmental hazards and permit violations — including a fish kill that caused the death of thousands of fish and the pollution of the river with un-permitted artificial turf, both of which occurred during construction last summer.

That’s in addition to a lawsuit from the Department of Justice over the Clean Water Act. That lawsuit is specifically in response to the artificial turf incident, in which hundreds of cubic yards of turf that dam owner Electron Hydro had placed in the river disintegrated into crumb rubber and flowed downstream to the Puget Sound.

Although Electron Hydro took the sheets of artificial turf that hadn’t disintegrated out of the river in late October, Lisa Anderson, environmental attorney for the Puyallup Tribe, said broken pieces of the turf can still be seen in the river today.

Puyallup Tribe sues Electron Dam owner over artificial turf pollution, fish kills

The artificial turf pollution prompted Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier to call for the dam’s removal last September — and he isn’t the only one to advocate for that position.

“There are a lot of different people who have looked at this and said, ‘We need to finish this, we need to shut this down and move on, and start restoring the fish run and letting the river recover,'” Dammeier said, adding, “It’s just time, this dam has outlived its purpose.”

Last year, Puget Sound Energy severed its contract with Electron Hydro because of the permit violations and environmental hazards. Anderson said that meant the dam has no local energy customers.

Dammeier said the damage it’s doing outweighs the benefit to the community — including the harm it does to fish just by running every day, because of the way it was built. Built in 1904, the dam would have to be massively renovated to be brought up to modern environmental standards.

“Because it’s a 117-year-old dam, it doesn’t follow all the current practices,” Dammeier said. “Any realistic effort to try to get it into compliance is really not, from my understanding, economically feasible. At this point, the most reasonable way to proceed is to find a way to remove the dam and let the river and the fish recover.”

That removal could happen through several different methods and with the help of many different stakeholders.

“There’s a whole series of ways that it could go, … there’s certainly an interest by the federal government, there’s certainly an interest by the state government, there’s certainly an interest by Pierce County, there’s an interest by the Puyallup Tribe, there’s an interest by other environmental groups,” Dammeier said. “So you could see a number of different ways that resources or pressure could be brought to bear that could result in both the removal of the dam and the restoration of the river.”

And this could take place regardless of whether or not Electron Hydro approves.

“There are ways that they can be forced, it can be forced upon them, or there are ways that they can choose to engage more constructively,” Dammeier said. “At this point, it’s not clear to me which path we’ll end up on.”

He is not sure how likely it is to see this taking place in this new year, but he holds out hope.

“I would probably say that’s too optimistic, but I’m a very optimistic person,” Dammeier said. “But I really doubt it would happen in 2021.”

Electron Hydro said in a statement it is contributing to fish recovery and renewable energy.

“Electron Hydro has already built a premium Chinook acclimation facility below the diversion from which 320,000 Chinook smolt were released last May into the Puyallup River by the Puyallup Tribe,” the company said.

It went on, “Looking forward, Washington State, by way of Senate Bill 5116, has set the course for demanding carbon free energy generation within the near future to help offset the adverse effects of climate change. Electron Hydro, blessed with the snow and ice fields of Mt. Rainier, will be an essential renewable resource community partner in this endeavor.”

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As lawsuits mount, government looks into removing Electron Dam