Judge orders dam operator to pay $1 million for polluting Puyallup River
(CN) — A county judge in Washington state on Monday ordered Electron Hydro and its operator to pay $1 million in fines and restitution for operating an illegal hydraulic project on the Puyallup River — a sum the state Attorney General's Office believes to be the state's largest ever for an environmental crime.
In January 2022, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed 36 misdemeanor charges against Electron Hydro and Chief Operating Officer Thom Fischer in Pierce County Superior Court over the pollution of bits of plastic yarn and crumb rubber from a faulty construction project in the Puyallup River.
Ferguson’s charges came in the wake of two federal lawsuits against Electron Hydro involving the same incident, the first of which came from the U.S. Department of Justice in November 2020 at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency.
While repairing its diversion dam structure and spillway in July 2020, Electron Hydro created a bypass channel within a portion of the Puyallup River and, in violation of its permits, lined the channel with plastic field turf taken from a nearby disposal area.
When Electron Hydro routed the river back into the channel, the river tore through the liner, releasing “at least 600 square yards of waste field turf and at least four to six cubic yards of crumb rubber into the Puyallup River,” according to the Justice Department complaint.
The same river flows into Puget Sound and serves as critical habitat to species protected under the Endangered Species Act and a treaty with the Puyallup Tribe, who also sued Electron Hydro in December 2020.
This past February, Electron Hydro and Fischer pleaded guilty to operating the illegal dam project and accepted Ferguson’s recommend sentencing of $1,000 plus two years of probation in lieu of 364 days in jail.
On Monday, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorenson appeared to follow such recommendations by ordering Electron Hydro to pay Pierce County $250,000 in penalties and Fischer to pay $5,000. The judge also gave Fischer a suspended 364-day jail sentence so long as he does not violate the law again while ordering Electron Hydro to pay $745,000 to the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries to restore the river.
“This outcome directs critical resources towards restoring the Puyallup River from the damage cause by Electron Hydro’s criminal conduct,” Ferguson said in a statement. “The Puyallup Tribe has been a steward of the Puyallup River for generations, and the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries is best positioned to preserve, restore and enhance the river.”
As explained by Ferguson’s office, the Puyallup Tribal Fisheries operates several fish hatcheries in the Puyallup River watershed to restore its Chinook and coho salmon populations. The fish, however, are inadvertently harmed by Electron Hydro’s release of crumb rubber, which contains the highly toxic chemical 6PPD-Quinone. Since the dam’s release of artificial turf, Ferguson says the fisheries department has been actively involved in the cleanup, with removal operations as recent as March.
The outcome on Monday, of course, does not resolve other ongoing civil cases against Electron Hydro — including those brought by the tribe.
Bench trial for the Puyallup Tribe’s lawsuit — which accuses Electron Hydro of the taking of endangered fish — is scheduled for March 2024 before U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour. Bench trial for the Department of Justice’s case against Electron Hydro is set for Oct. 10, 2023, with Judge Coughenour presiding as well.
Representatives of the Fisheries and Electron Hydro did not immediately respond to requests for comment.