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Liability concerns part of discussion

By Lee Juillerat, Herald and News February 21, 2009

Oregon Department of Justice attorneys believe Senate Bill 76 will protect the state from any cost overruns from removal of four Klamath River dams.

The bill would allow Pacifi-Corp to raise rates for customers in Oregon to help pay for dam removal.

In a Feb. 13 letter to Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, chairwoman of the Senate’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, assistant attorney general Kurt Burkholder said the risk is low that PacifiCorp customers would be responsible for dam removal costs exceeding $180 million.

Burkholder said the “bill expressly states that the surcharges collected from the customers ‘may not exceed’ the amounts necessary to raise the Oregon share.” Although potential liabilities could include downstream property damage, such as flooding, or economic injury, such as sediments harming downstream commercial fisheries, he said nothing in the bill would impose liability on the state.

“Our view … is that the risk is low that the state would step into liabilities associated with dam removal,” Bu rk holder wrote. “And, again, we do not see SB 76 increasing that low risk.”

State Sen. Doug Whitsett, who opposes the bill, said it identifies who can’t be sued but not who can be sued. He hopes the Oregon House will include an amendment better defining who could be liable. Another opponent, Tom Mallams, president of an off Klamath Project irrigators group, said the bill addresses only surcharges, not other possible costs.

Steve Kandra, a farmer, and Greg Addington, the Klamath Basin Water Users Association executive director, who both favor the bill, called such concerns “red herrings.” They believe the wording provides assurances against future liability claims, and say the Burkholder letter supports that belief.

State Rep. Bill Garrard said he expects the House committee that considers the bill will try to strengthen language to protect against liability concerns. If changes are made, the amended bill would be reviewed by a House-Senate conference committee.
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