- October 17 - New water quality standards proposed by the federal government for the state of Oregon amount to a retreat on the national commitment to clean up polluted waters and would effectively relieve more than 150 federal dams in Oregon from their Clean Water Act responsibilities, conservationists warned today.
On October 10th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft of new standards required by a federal court order that found EPA had wrongly approved State of Oregon standards that failed to protect threatened and endangered salmon from high water temperatures.
"Oregon has become the first public battleground for the Bush administration's plans to undermine the Clean Water Act across the nation," said Joan Mulhern, Senior Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. "EPA has been gearing up all year to weaken the Clean Water Act's key program for cleaning up unsafe levels of water pollution and this is their opening salvo."
The proposed rule would allow agencies operating federal dams in Oregon to petition EPA to weaken water quality standards. The receipt of a petition would require EPA to conduct a technical review of whether fish could be protected if dams were left in place and if EPA found that they could not, the rule would require EPA to weaken the standards.
"By making the process for weakening standards mandatory, EPA is completely removing the policy choice of fully protecting water quality and fish from the state of Oregon," said Nina Bell, Executive Director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, the organization whose lawsuit led to the court order.
"The court ordered EPA to make sure river temperatures were safe for endangered species but instead, the Administration's fixation with giving polluters a break has resulted in EPA's creation of a giant loophole," she added.
"Weakening Clean Water Act standards for federal dams is just the starting point because the Bush administration is drafting rules to gut the program Americans are counting on to clean up water pollution that threatens public health, fish, and wildlife," according to Mulhern.
"All pollution sources, including federal agencies, have spent the last year clamoring for exemptions from clean water programs and EPA is working on a proposal to let them off the hook. People who want clean water should be alarmed by what the Bush administration is doing."
EPA has not said how many dams could be affected by its proposal but it is believed there are 150 to 200 federal dams in Oregon. EPA is also encouraging the operators of federal dams to come forward in the next 30 days to show how their dams should be exempted from compliance with the Clean Water Act without going through the petition process.
"This Bush administration backroom deal virtually exempts federal dams from pollution standards and usurps the ability of the public and the State of Oregon from making the important decision about how clean their rivers and streams should be," said David Moryc of the Northwest Regional Office of American Rivers.
Dams cause water temperatures to rise by capturing water in unshaded reservoirs, slowing stream flows, and preventing water from cooling. High temperatures cause disease, reproductive failure, and death in cold-water fish such as salmon and steelhead. Oregon has identified 12,102 miles of rivers and streams as impaired by high temperatures and needing clean-up plans.
EPA is accepting public comments on its proposal through November 10th. Public hearings will be held on the draft rule in Portland at the State Office Building on October 22nd, in Eugene at the Eugene Public Library on the 23rd, and in Bend at the Bend Community Center on the 24th.