A Washington state dam owner has agreed to pay $1 million in restitution and fines after a maintenance project polluted a river with unpermitted crumb rubber and threatened the Chinook salmon population the project was designed in part to assist.
The payment, which is still pending court approval, would be the largest for an environmental crime in state history, officials say.
Electron Hydro LLC, which operates a 26-MW hydroelectric dam on the Puyallup River in Pierce County, and its chief operating officer Thom Fischer, pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor violation of operating an unlawful hydraulic project, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Feb. 27.
Of the proposed $1-million payment, $745,000 is earmarked for river restitution, with the rest set as a fine paid to the county. The settlement was reached just ahead of a scheduled trial for Fischer, who had faced 30 gross misdemeanor charges out of 36 filed by the attorney general in early 2022. A county superior court judge is set to rule May 5 on the settlement terms.
The Electron Dam dates to the early 1900s. Electron Hydro has owned it since 2014. The firm undertook efforts to modernize the facility to withstand large flow volumes during storms. That work involved repairing a diversion, rebuilding shoreline protections upstream and downstream as well as replacing the spillway, project documents show. The plan also called for installation of a sediment and fish exclusion system at the intake.
According to the attorney general’s office, Electron Hydro obtained county, state and federal permits for the $3.6-million project and began work on a temporary bypass channel in mid-2020. But the company’s applications had not included its plan to use segments of artificial turf. A video shared on social media by an Electron Hydro construction employee-turned-whistleblower shows rolls of artificial turf with football yard markings at the site.
The attorney general’s office says the company placed about 2,400 sq yd of unpermitted turf material containing 16 to 18 cu yd of crumb rubber, which contained millions of individual rubber beads. Crews then covered the turf with a plastic liner and diverted the river over it.
The liner ruptured days later, causing artificial turf and crumb rubber to discharge into the river. Pierce County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop-work order, but the river remained diverted through October 2020, officials say. The project remains unfinished.
A chemical analysis of crumb rubber recovered from the river revealed the presence of a chemical compound called 6PPD-Quinone, which is “extremely toxic” to salmon, according to the attorney general’s office.
“Electron Hydro and Thom Fischer’s reckless conduct damaged this waterway and put species like salmon at risk,” Ferguson said in a statement.
Attorneys for Electron Hydro and Fischer said in a statement that the permit violation was unintentional and that it should have been handled administratively, rather than with criminal charges. They said there was no evidence that fish had been harmed or killed as a result of the liner rupture and discharge.
"The company and Mr. Fischer immediately took responsibility for the accident, expressed regret and acted with all diligence to clean the turf and related materials from the river," the attorneys said.
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians’ tribal council said in a statement that they were grateful for prosecutors’ efforts to hold Electron Hydro accountable, but criticized the settlement as a “token of dollars” that “won’t bring back salmon or habitat.” The tribe says members continue to find pieces of artificial turf downstream in the river.
“This is not accountability,” the tribal council said in its statement. “This is a mere operating expense for the company. The health of our people and the residents of Washington is worth a lot more than that.”
In addition to the criminal case, Electron Hydro had also faced lawsuits filed by environmental conservation groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company settled two cases with the conservation groups last year. The EPA case is currently scheduled for a federal bench trial starting Oct. 10.