As promised, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released its "Draft Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement" on the Condit Hydroelectric Project before the end of January.
On Jan. 31, FERC issued a 14-page document that "provides updates to the 1996 FEIS and fully assesses the effects associated with approval and implementation of the Settlement Agreement, including staff-identified modifications."
Issuance of the draft FEIS, with a "staff recommendation" included, represents the latest step in an effort by PacifiCorp, a Portland-based utility firm and owner of Condit Dam, to gain regulatory approval to decommission and remove the dam from the White Salmon River.
Condit Dam, located approximately 3.5 miles upstream from the Columbia River, was built in 1913. The facility provides 14.7 megawatts of electrical power.
Dave Kvamme, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp, said his company was pleased with the message in the draft FEIS.
"While we haven't yet read the full statement, it seems to give the nod to the settlement we submitted," Kvamme said. "This is another step in the process, but we're still working through the permitting needed to remove the dam in 2006."
However, Mark King, a Northwestern Lake resident who opposes removal of the dam and a member of the White Salmon Conservation League, said he was surprised by the neutrality of the staff ruling.
"My initial impression was surprise," King said. "I thought we would have more of a clear-cut answer. This came across as leaving it and not taking a stand. The staff now seems to be handing it back to the commissioners to make the final decision."
PacifiCorp, Yakama Nation leaders, American Rivers (a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group), and various fish and wildlife agencies reached a September 1999 agreement (known as the "Settlement Agreement") to remove the dam in 2006. However, PacifiCorp still has to gain final approval from FERC to proceed with the proposed removal, and legal action is possible from those who want to keep the dam in place.
King said there were serious legal problems with the removal proposal.
"Removal would threaten the Endangered Species Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act," he said. "It's hard to understand how they could go forward under those circumstances."
The section that summarizes -- in "legalese" -- the recommendation of the FERC staff reads as follows: "Commission staff does not recommend a preferred alternative at this time. However, based on staff's environmental and economic reassessment of the three licensing alternatives, staff continues to believe that the license proposal with modifications alternative would offer the best balance of developmental and non-developmental resource values among the licensing alternatives ... Likewise, based on staff's environmental and economic comparison of the Settlement Agreement with modifications dam removal alternative with the other dam removal alternatives and taking into consideration the unilateral support by all relevant federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and tribes for the method of dam removal proposed by the Settlement Agreement, staff finds that the Settlement Agreement with modifications dam removal alternative would provide the best and most cost-effective means of removing the project facilities and reservoir sediments while concurrently providing for the protection of environmental resources, and therefore recommends the Settlement Agreement with modifications dam removal alternative should the commission choose to amend the license to extend the term until Oct. 1, 2006, and require removal of the dam and associated facilities thereafter."
No date has yet been set as to when the FERC commissioners might take final action on the Settlement Agreement.
Kvamme explained that PacifiCorp had little choice but to abandon the aging dam.
"The situation is not a very good one," Kvamme said. "We sought new opportunities to license the dam. It was clear to us we would be required to build fish facilities and other improvements that would render the project completely uneconomical for our customers. If we had to build the fish ladder, it would be an extremely high-cost project. What was once a good low-cost resource is no longer that. It was time to move on and find a solution that made sense."
King said the economics of dam removal were quickly changing.
"Dam removal is only marginally cheaper than fish passage under today's power prices," King explained. "And on the economic side, one issue has been ignored completely: it is speculated that the in-lieu fishing site at the mouth of the Columbia River at Underwood will have to be dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers. So basically taxpayers will pay for that."
The issuing of the FEIS triggers a 45-day comment period to FERC officials in Washington, D.C. Comments can be directed to FERC, Condit Hydroelectric Project Washington (Project No. 2342), 888 First Street NE, Washington, D.C., 20426.