'Close this dinosaur down.' Owner of Pierce County dam under fire for use of AstroTurf
UPDATE, Sept. 14: Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier says he wants to see the obsolete Electron Dam removed from the Puyallup River. He issued a letter to the head of Electron Hydro, extending the county’s stop-work order because of the AstroTurf and requiring a list of 14 steps to be carried out immediately.
A hydroelectric dam that was built on the Puyallup River in 1903 has long been controversial for the Puyallup Tribe. It was to be replaced this summer, and improvements added to help with fish recovery.
That work is now on hold, after the company was caught trying to line the riverbed with old AstroTurf.
A disgruntled employee shared video on Facebook showing dozens of rolls of the material piled up like old carpeting, rolled out and crumbling into small pellets at the Electron Dam site in Eatonville.
“It’s all rubber, laying around, like fish food,” said Derek van Giesen, who quit his job after posting the video. He’s says he’s a fisherman at heart and didn’t like the way they were treating native fish, among other concerns.
Russ Ladley, Puyallup resource protection manager, says he didn’t want to believe it at first. The material was not approved in the site’s construction permits. It’s petroleum-based and widely known to be highly toxic.
"AstroTurf is linked to all kinds of human health problems," he said. "And it's also full of contaminants that you don't want in rivers, streams and bays.”
But Ladley says untold amounts flowed all the way into Commencement Bay.
“Essentially everywhere we look, we now find AstroTurf material; either the green plastic grass, or the fine bits of rubber in the sand,” he said. “So it's really a calamity of horrors, when you look at the big picture. There's so many people trying to do the right thing throughout Puget Sound and then a simple mistake like this — it’s just hard to understand.”
Electron Hydro, which owns the dam, admits some AstroTurf broke away during high flows and washed down the river, after the company attempted to use it as a protective cushion for a heavy plastic liner that had started leaking as workers dewatered the site. The Puyallup Tribe contacted regulators. Stop work orders are now in place from both Pierce County and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The state Department of Ecology said in a statement that it’s “very concerned” about placement of the discarded turf in the river, stressing that it violates the Clean Water Act. The agency is providing technical assistance to the Army Corps and the county.
“We and the other agencies are following up to ensure that Electron Hydro and its contractors remove any turf material still in the river,” spokesman Larry Altose said in an email. He added that it’s premature to predict what enforcement measures, if any, will be taken.
Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud says he’s been fighting this dam since the 1970s, because it kills fish. The new construction was meant to fix many issues with the facility. But Sterud says it’s time to walk away.
“Close this dinosaur down,” Sterud said. “Protect our fish, not just for the native people, but for all people — this thing should be closed down. And we should be moving forward in a good environmental clean water way for our fish.”
Puyallup environmental attorney Lisa Anderson says the tribe is considering all its legal options, including invoking its treaty rights. She says the dam needs to cease operations until the company proves it has a plan that will actually put fish first.
But, in a statement emailed to KNKX, the company says it is eager to get back to work and is cooperating with government agencies to meet their requirements for material recovery and restoration, as directed.
“The project will continue when the issues are satisfied. Electron is committed to producing clean energy and restoring Puyallup River fisheries,” the statement says.
The hydroelectric facility provides electricity for about 20,000 homes, via its previous owner, Puget Sound Energy. Once the upgrades are finished, the dam would include a screen at the intake and other fish-friendly improvements.