Dam operator to pay $1 million in river pollution case

By: - May 9, 2023 3:00 am

(Getty Images)

The operator of a hydroelectric dam near Mt. Rainier National Park will have to pay a total of $1 million in fines and restitution in connection to a 2020 spill that left debris and chemicals from artificial turf floating down the Puyallup River. 

Pierce County Judge Philip Sorensen on Friday sentenced Electron Hydro to pay $250,000 in penalties plus $745,000 in restitution to the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries, which will use it to help restore the river. Sorensen sentenced the company’s Chief Operating Officer Thom Fischer to pay an additional $5,000 in penalties, plus 364 days in jail, suspended as long as he complies with his sentence.

The fines are the largest amount paid for an environmental crime in Washington state law history, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 

“This outcome directs critical resources towards restoring the Puyallup River from the damage caused by Electron Hydro’s criminal conduct,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “The Puyallup Tribe has been a steward of the Puyallup River for generations, and the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries is best positioned to preserve, restore and enhance the river.”

Electron Hydro and Fischer pleaded guilty earlier this year to one criminal violation of operating an unlawful hydraulic project, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Ferguson initially filed 36 charges against the company. 

In July 2020, dam workers placed artificial turf and rubber into the riverbed to create a temporary bypass channel during construction to update the dam. Workers covered the turf with a plastic liner and diverted the river over it. 

The liner ripped and left turf debris to float down the river for about 10 days, Ferguson’s office said in a release. The turf and rubber contained 6PPD-Quinone, a chemical that is toxic to coho salmon.

In a written statement, Fischer said he and Electron Hydro are thankful the case is concluded and are pleased that restitution will be invested in fisheries enhancement on the Puyallup River.

“Electron looks forward to moving ahead with the installation of fish and sediment exclusion facilities to prevent harm to fish in the river,” Fischer wrote in an email. “The company would then return to providing renewable energy for the community while protecting and enhancing the fishery.”

The Puyallup Tribal Fisheries will use the funds they received from the case to continue their work restoring the river. Currently, the tribe does extensive work preserving the river and operating fish hatcheries to restore the salmon population, including the coho salmon. 

According to Ferguson’s Office, the fisheries department has been removing the turf from the spill since 2020, including as recently as March of this year. 

Following the guilty plea in February, the Puyallup Tribal Council said in a statement that the settlement doesn’t come close to accountability. The amount of money Electron Hydro has to pay is “a mere operating expense,” according to the statement. 

“A token of dollars won’t bring back salmon or habitat,” the statement read.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.