Snake River dam spills up to 300 gallons of oil into river

LOWER MONUMENTAL DAM, Wash. -- Up to 300 gallons of oil may have spilled into the Snake River from a leaking, power-generating turbine at Lower Monumental Dam.

On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told Q13 News that, "any oil spilled into the river is too much."

Lower Monumental Dam is about 40 miles northeast of Tri Cities. It is one of four dams on the lower Snake River that has been targeted by salmon and orca advocates who want the corps to breach them.

Dams have proved detrimental to fish survival, despite billions of dollars spent mitigating the impacts and improving fish passage. The Snake River is home to threatened fish species like sockeye salmon, steelhead trout and chinook salmon, the preferred prey of the endangered southern resident orcas.

"There are salmon and steelhead runs, that are, frankly, hanging on by a thread in the lower Snake River," said Miles Johnson, senior attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper. "Any additional stress on those runs is extremely concerning."

Columbia Riverkeeper has sued the corps in the past over spills like this. The corps realized around August 1 that oil was likely spilling when they were adding oil to Turbine Unit 2 at Lower Monumental.

The corps is investigating the cause of the spill and has shut down the turbine until the cause can be identified and mitigated. There's no timeline on when the turbine will go back online. A spokesman said the money to fix the leak will come from the operations and maintenance budget.

"Instead of dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into this aging infrastructure in the lower Snake River, we think it would be better to remove those dams, remove the source of oil into the river, remove the negative impacts that the dams are having on on salmon and orcas in Washington state," Johnson said.

It’s not the first time this 50-year old dam has leaked. In 2017, a series of spills sent more than 1,600 gallons of oil into the Snake River.

Nearby at Ice Harbor Dam in 2012, more than 1,500 gallons of oil that contained cancer-causing PCBs made its way into the river.

In an email, a spokesman for the corps' Walla Walla district said, "We've improved our oil accountability program over time and while our systems aren't perfect, the lessons learned have greatly improved our overall ability to track and contain oil. To help us improve our procedures the corps is evaluating and testing the use of environmentally acceptable lubricants at the dams. We'll continue refining these procedures because our goal is to not spill any oil.”

Dam-breaching advocates are using the spill as a springboard to argue that the federal government should stop pumping money into the aging infrastructure and instead use the money to help stabilize the communities that would be affected in the event the dams are breached.

Earlier this week, the Center for Whale Research declared that three more endangered orcas had died. As the orcas struggle, the future of the dams continue to be a point of contention.

There is an ongoing federal review looking at the environmental impacts of the entire Columbia-Snake river system. In addition, Washington state will soon start a stakeholder process to study the Snake River dams and the impacts of breaching.