Dam owner blamed for polluting Washington River field

Dam owner blamed for polluting Washington River field

SEATTLE (AP) — A company that operates a century-old hydroelectric dam near Mount Rainier National Park and its chief operating officer each pleaded guilty Monday to single felony counts related to the spill of synthetic field turf and tiny rubber particles. Make it the Puyallup River in 2020.

The company, Electron Hydro LLC, will also give $1 million that will go mostly to salmon habitat restoration projects.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson initially charged Electron and Chief Operating Officer Thom Fisher with three dozen misdemeanors, saying they released pollutants and willfully violated a permit when they used old field turf as a liner during a construction project. The dam, built southeast of Tacoma in 1904, provides electricity to 20,000 customers.

In the summer of 2020, synthetic field turf was installed in a temporary bypass channel and then topped with a plastic liner to allow the river to be diverted, allowing for dam construction. But one night the liner ruptured, sending a large amount of field turf into the furnace.

One of the turf’s key components, black rubber particles made from recycled tires that help provide cushion for the playing surface, lines the miles (kilometers) of shore. It contains a chemical that is particularly toxic to coho salmon.

Fisher and Electron Hydro each pleaded guilty in Pierce County Superior Court to one count of violating a permit issued by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

They argued that it was not clear that they were not supposed to use field turf in the project, something the state disputed.

The attorney general’s office noted that the company’s own biologist, Mallory Voik, warned Fisher days before the spill that using field turf was unacceptable because the rubber could enter the river. The company says it never wants water to touch the turf or rubber of the field, only the plastic liner on top of it.

Judge Philip Sorenson dismissed some charges against Electron Hydro and Fisher earlier this month. After the judge suggested that the state was being “heavy-handed” in pursuing the case as a criminal matter rather than an administrative matter, the parties reached a plea agreement, dropping allegations that the state violation was willful.

“Electron Hydro and I are pleased to put this unfortunate and completely unintended incident behind us and return our focus and attention to completing the necessary upgrades to our facility,” Fisher said in a statement Monday. “We plan to continue providing clean energy to our customers, always mindful of the fragile ecosystem in which we have the privilege of going to work every day.”

The state agreed not to recommend any jail time for Fisher, said his attorney, Angelo Calfo.

The attorney general’s office did not immediately issue a statement in response to a request from The Associated Press.

The agency previously agreed to pay about $500,000 in a settlement with the state Department of Ecology. Related lawsuits brought by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Puyallup Tribe are set for trial in the fall.

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