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Slam! Karuk, Riverkeeper file lawsuit in state court

The little algae that broke the power company's back?

by Phil Hayworth, Pioneer Press, August 29, 2007

It could be the lawsuit -- and the little algae -- that broke the power company's back. Klamath Riverkeeper, the Karuk tribe of California and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations want to force the North Coast Regional Quality Control Board -- and Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp -- to regulate discharges of toxic blue-green algae in the Klamath River.

To that end, the group filed suit against the water board on Aug. 23 in the Superior Court of California in Sonoma County.

The lawsuit alleges that the water board failed to establish limits on discharges from Copco Dam and Iron Gate reservoir, which are owned by PacifiCorp. Now, they say, the water is polluted with algae that, in quantity and when shaken and stirred, becomes toxic.

That menacing martini is just another reason why the groups have long pushed for removal of the Iron Gate and Copco dams. They also claim the dams harm water quality and salmon runs in the river along the California-Oregon border.

Some studies suggest that swimmers, animals and others who ingest or are exposed to large amounts of the algae, called Microcystin Aeruginosa, can get sick.

The power company operates seven dams along the Klamath River, but Iron Gate and Copco One and Copco Two are today in the crosshair. Iron Gate alone produces 18,000 megawatts, the Copco dams add more to the soup, and the seven hydro dams together produce about 161 megawatts for about 70,000 customers, producing power worth about $29 million a year, according to the California Energy Commission.

But Klamath Riverkeeper spokesperson Regina Chichizola said that the suit -- which was filed in state court, not federal court-- will only force the board and PacifCorp to initiate a study. If the report indicates the dams are creating and releasing toxic algae, then the water board could force PacifiCorp to remediate the problem or pay for what Chichizola called "permits to pollute."

"We're not saying that the dams have to come down," insisted Regina Chichizola, "just that they are creating a pollutant and they should be regulated."

But getting permits will likely be costly and take time.

"It means we're going to court," she said. "We'll be submitting briefs in state court, and then the court will decide whether or not PacifiCorp needs to do a report."

"It could take at least a year," she said.

Two weeks ago, the Karuk and the Sierra Club of California were thrilled when Yreka-based dentist and Republican Dr. Sam Wakim -- a strong proponent of keeping the dams -- resigned from the water board. He resigned after accusations were made that he engaged in hate speech by posting a doctored-up California license on his personal website nearly three years ago depicting a sombrero-wearing Mexican. He told the Pioneer Press just weeks before his resignation that he would promote the Governor's mission to keep the dams up, and that he personally thought the blue-green algae could be remediated.

Thursday's suit is just one more ember on the pyre that is PacifiCorp's presence on the Klamath River. The company is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., which itself is majority owned by Warren Buffet. They're presently trying to get relicensed by the Federal Energy Commission. Correspondence between the Federal Energy Commission and California Energy Commission strongly suggest that the company would be better off financially to get rid of the dams, or at least tear down Iron Gate.

B. B. Blevins, California Energy Commission executive director, wrote in a letter dated April 19, 2007 to FERC - complete with the Governor's signature and the California seal -- that "results affirm that decommissioning the Klamath Hydro Project and procuring replacement power for 30 years would be less costly to PacifiCorp and its ratepayers than relicensing the project and mitigating its impacts."

After all is done and the checks have been mailed, it'll likely come down to whether PacifiCorp, its board and, ultimately, its shareholders, are willing to spend the estimated $300 million needed to fix the algae and fish problem.

This summer, the Karuk Indian tribe was charged with collecting water samples, and health workers took blood samples from area swimmers, fisherman and boaters from August 17 through 19. The CDC granted the Karuk nearly $85,000 to conduct the sampling, and the tribe paid $40 to every lake user who volunteered to help with the two-day sampling effort. Karuk Water Resources Coordinator Susan Corum said during an open-house informational event last month at the Best Western in Yreka that recent samples taken from area waters frequented by recreational users contained 100-times what the World Health Organization considers a moderate health risk.

Representatives from the Karuk Tribe and fishing association refused to comment about last week's suit.
 
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