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Conservationists: Idaho Power Illegally Flushes Oil, Grease Into Snake River

A historic photo of Brownlee Dam
ID-A-0197, WaterArchives.org
This historical photo of Brownlee Dam used as a postcard dates from around 1960. A new lawsuit claims Idaho Power, which operates the dam, is illegally discharging polluted water from it into the Snake River.

An Idaho environmental group is suing Idaho Power, claiming it’s illegally polluting the Snake River through Brownlee Dam in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the suit filed in federal court Thursday, Snake River Waterkeeper said water used to cool a powerhouse at the dam gets contaminated with oil and grease from the machinery, which it said is then flushed into the river below.

Brownlee Dam sits in Hells Canyon along the Idaho-Oregon border.

In 1980, Idaho Power applied for, but never obtained, a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to discharge the polluted cooling water from that powerhouse, the group said.

The company does have a permit from 1974 that covers water discharged from a separate powerhouse.

Snake River Waterkeeper said Idaho Power contacted the group earlier this year after it filed a notice of intent to sue in January, claiming the 1974 permit also covers the newer generators.

“Idaho Power believes it is in compliance with all permitting requirements mentioned in the complaint, and we intend to respond,” Brad Bowlin, a spokesperson for Idaho Power, said in an emailed statement.

In addition to the tainted water carrying pollutants, Snake River Waterkeeper said the discharge also warms the river downstream. Salmon and other fish protected under the Endangered Species Act need cool river temperatures to survive.

The EPA in 2018 released a draft pollution permit that would’ve covered hydroelectric dams in Idaho. But Bret Dumas, director of environmental affairs for Idaho Power, urged the federal agency at the time to let state regulators develop their own permit.

The state has since taken over the permitting process, though no permit has been issued for the newer powerhouse at Brownlee Dam, the lawsuit said.

Columbia Riverkeeper, another conservation group, sued the Army Corps of Engineers in 2013 over similar pollution concerns regarding multiple dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

The Army Corps of Engineers settled the next year, promising to apply for federal pollution permits for eight of the dams to limit pollution. They also promised to monitor the amount of pollution it discharged into the river systems and to use biodegradable oils if feasible.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!