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Dam operator will pay $1M for ongoing turf pollution. Puyallup Tribe says it's a slap on the hand

The Electron Dam, shown here in 2009, became notorious in August 2020, after a whistleblower revealed how operators tried to line the riverbed with highly toxic Astroturf.
Steven Pavlov
Wikimedia Commons via Western Environmental Law Center
The Electron Dam, shown here in 2009, became notorious in August 2020, after a whistleblower revealed how operators tried to line the riverbed with highly toxic Astroturf.

Three years after the discovery that dam operator Electron Hydrolined a river bed with turf during a construction project, crumb rubber continues to wash up in the Puyallup River and more than 40 miles downstream in Commencement Bay.

In what may be the largest financial penalty for an environmental crime in state history, Pierce County Superior Court ordered Electron Hydro and its owner to pay $1 million, including $745,000 in restitution to Puyallup Tribal Fisheries for river restoration.

The ruling is in response toa lawsuitbrought by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The company and owner, Thom Fischer,pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge.

The Puyallup Tribe told KNKX the fines are not nearly enough to address the damage done by artificial turf and crumb rubber that’s still washing up in the river.

“The damage that has been done … the years that it’s going to take to clear this up and clean it up. And the fish that have already eaten it,” said Puyallup Vice Chair Sylvia Miller.

“That's pennies. That's pennies to us. It'll never be enough.”

Miller said the tribe has already spent more than the $745,000 award deploying its staff to clean up the turf and crumb rubber, which is from recycled tires and contains toxic chemicals that are especially damaging to coho salmon. She called the million dollars a pittance for Electron Hydro — while the toxic pollution they caused will have unknown consequences for generations to come.

“When you think about the crime that they have committed, this will — this will not do justice for what they have done,” she said.

She said the tribe is grateful to state for bringing criminal charges, but disappointed with the outcome. The company’s COO Thom Fischer was assessed the maximum fine, $5,000 – and probation, with no jail time. Miller said that’s inadequate.

“That is just such a slap on the hand. It's insulting to us. It really is,” she said.

Electron Hydro previously agreed to pay about $500,000 to settle a suit brought by the state Department of Ecology over the artificial turf in the Puyallup River. Two federal lawsuits alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act are pending, with trials scheduled for this fall and next spring.   

In a statement, Electron Hydro and Fischer said they were "thankful" that the state's case had concluded and "pleased that restitution will be invested in fisheries enhancement on the Puyallup River.”

The goal of the tribe, supported by Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, is to keep the dam from restarting. The turf spilled into the river as part of an accident during upgrades to the dam and its powerhouse. The facility is more than a century old and provides enough power for about 20,000 homes.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to