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Condit Dam removal process caught in regulatory limbo

Final approval for PacifiCorp to remove its dam on the White Salmon River has been placed on hold

It wasn't expected to be easy, but it wasn't supposed to be this difficult, either.

That seems to sum up the feelings of PacifiCorp administrators on the status of the planned removal of the utility's Condit Dam on the White Salmon River.

Final approval for PacifiCorp to remove the dam, located on the White Salmon River, three miles upstream from the river's confluence with the Columbia River, has been waiting on an OK from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That was expected to be a formality, but now the process appears to be snagged in a "procedural problem."

In an informal visit to Condit Dam by several members of the FERC staff on May 16, representatives of the agency unexpectedly raised some new issues regarding the agreement PacifiCorp signed to remove the dam.

"We didn't have any illusions it would be easy, but we're still working toward the agreement," said Dave Kvamme, communications business partner for PacifiCorp. "There is no reason to believe it (dam removal) would be delayed."

Amidst a background of lively controversy, PacifiCorp reached an agreement in September 1999 to take the dam out in 2006 in order to improve salmon passage along the White Salmon River. The three main signatories to the deal included PacifiCorp, the Yakama Indian Nation, and American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization.

Negotiations on dam removal plans began in 1997.

Kvamme said the current technicality with FERC did not mean there was any change in PacifiCorp's plan to remove the dam.

"It wasn't easy to get to that agreement and it's worthwhile to follow through. That's what we're going to do. We're working through the issues," Kvamme said. "The agreement caps costs for removal of the facility. It provides an opportunity to defray costs, and that protects our customers. We wanted certainty about what we could do. It's a good thing from our standpoint."

Kvamme said he didn't believe the problems FERC has with the paperwork are insurmountable.

"I think FERC has been very encouraging to find solutions," Kvamme explained. "I don't want to try to speak for them, but I think they think there are procedural things they need to work out."

According to one observer, the problem comes because PacifiCorp was originally asking for a license to renew operating the dam as an electrical generating facility. Later the utility signed a deal to instead remove the dam altogether.

"FERC needs to treat all applications consistently, so when something doesn't fit the mold it throws the process," said Judy Maule, a White Salmon resident who works for Central Cascades Alliance, a group in support of removing the dam. "That's where the snarl comes in."

FERC representatives have not provided any estimate of when the approval process for PacifiCorp's project will be completed. John Blair, head of FERC's office of hydropower licensing in Washington, D.C., did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.

Although the May 16 visit was not an "official" public meeting, representatives from PacifiCorp, FERC, and supporters and opponents of removing the dam gathered at Northwestern Lake to try to present their views.

Approximately 60 people gathered in the park in an effort to sway FERC officials.

Condit Dam, built in 1913, currently produces 14 megawatts of power, which is reported to be enough energy to meet the basic needs of 7,500 residential customers.

However, Kvamme pointed out that he did not believe there would be a problem with removing an electrical-generating facility in a time of potential power shortages.

"We will continue to operate our hydroelectric project through 2006," Kvamme said. "We'll get through the current energy crisis now in 2001. The dam is a good resource we'll continue to work until 2006. Then, hopefully by then, enough new resources will be on line so it won't be felt by customers."

Kvamme also noted that probably just as many people want the dam to remain as want to see it removed.

"The crowd was about equally divided among those who want to see it stay and those who want the dam to go," Kvamme said. "From our perspective, we're continuing to work to implement the agreement we came up with to eventually remove the dam. We have an agreement with the Yakama Nation, state and federal agencies, and some environmental groups. Some wish the dam would remain, and we're not unsympathetic to that. Yet we want to move forward with the agreement."

Kvamme noted that many area residents showed up at the Northwestern Lake park site to greet FERC staff members, but he stressed that the visit was not a major event.

"What happened was, the FERC team considering the request to remove the dam came for a visit," he explained. "All it was was a tour of the facility. Our role was strictly to provide a tour, and that's what we did."

The dam is scheduled to be removed in October 2006.


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