WASHINGTON: Hydropower Company Fined Over Sports Turf in River

OLYMPIA, Washington, June 10, 2021 (ENS) – The Washington Department of Ecology has fined the company Electron Hydro, LLC half a million dollars for discharging discarded plastic sports turf into the Puyallup River last summer.

The Electron Hydroelectric Project, originally known as the Puyallup Project, is a 22 MW hydroelectric power plant operated by Electron Hydro on the Puyallup River in Pierce County, Washington.

The plastic sports turf material broke away from an in-stream construction site in eastern Pierce County in late July. Pieces of sports turf were found up to 21 miles downstream. Deposits of ground-up tire rubber, used as padding for the turf, were believed to extend to the river’s mouth and possibly into Commencement Bay in Tacoma, 41 miles downstream.

The turf and its crumb rubber padding material are toxic when ingested by fish and other aquatic life. Puyallup River steelhead, bull trout and chinook, a critical food source for southern resident orcas, are all protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“These toxic materials had no place in the river,” said Ecology Director Laura Watson. “The force of the water tore the turf apart, washed it down river, and sent it right into the food web. This is an environmental tragedy that didn’t have to happen.”

Electron Hydro produces electricity by diverting water from the river near Orting in eastern Pierce County. The water flows 10 miles through an elevated flume then back to the river through a powerhouse.

Last summer, the company started construction to replace its diversion dam and water intake structure, built in 1903. The work included building a temporary bypass channel to divert the river away from the construction area.

As part of a lining for the bypass channel, Electron Hydro installed sheets of discarded sports turf. The company had not requested authorization to use that material when it obtained permits for the construction from Pierce County, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology.

A man lies on a piece of plastic sports turf pulled from the Puyallup River, 2020 (Photo by Eric Marks, biologist Puyallup Tribe)

Plastic liner was placed on top of more than 2,400 square yards of the sports turf and crumb rubber.

The river was diverted into the bypass channel on July 28, 2020. Soon after, river rocks that shifted in the flow breached the liner and discharged about 617 square yards of sports turf and an estimated four to six cubic yards of crumb rubber downstream.

Electron Hydro did not report this release to the state Department of Ecology or the other permitting agencies. A citizen reported to Ecology on July 30 about the sports turf and crumb rubber in the river. The company later informed Ecology that it had begun cleaning turf materials from the river and shorelines, and reported early in its cleanup that it had placed 13,000 pounds at a landfill.

After large sections tore away in July, the remaining portion of liner and turf at the construction site were left in place until the river was returned to its main channel on October 25. Pieces of exposed sports turf continued to discharge into the river during that time.

In addition to penalties associated with the release of sports turf and Construction Stormwater Permit violations, Ecology is issuing an Administrative Order to address ongoing Electron Hydro water quality violations.

Corrective actions required include:
• A Water Quality Management Plan that addresses the issues of sediment, warm water temperatures, and toxic substances
• A Hydroelectric Operations Water Quality Monitoring Plan for all waters influenced by the project
• Immediate compliance with all conditions associated with the construction of the barrier dam and water intake structure
• The submission of an annual Water Quality Monitoring Report

Water quality penalty payments to Ecology are placed into the state’s Coastal Protection Fund, which provides grants to public agencies and tribes for water quality restoration projects.

Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud says the tribe wants the 117-year-old Electron Hydro dam removed from the river. “The Department of Ecology’s fine against Electron Hydro today for its discharge of sports turf into the Puyallup River is a good step to protect our water and critically endangered sacred fish. It is not the only step.”

“We lose fish year after year. They begin life on the mountain and get chewed up by Electron Dam. Those that survive go down the river – now polluted by crumb rubber – and out to the bay, where they are greeted by multiple superfund sites. If they make it that far, they head out into the ocean through polluted waters, where they are butchered by commercial fisheries and seals.”

Sterud said, “Fish don’t care about fines and bank accounts. They care about safe, unobstructed passage and clean water. The dam must be removed.”

“This is our message to Electron Hydro: We will continue to protect and preserve these waters,” Sterud said. “Myself, Tribal Council and 6,000 Puyallup Tribal Members are watching you.”

A spokesperson for Electron Hydro told local media that the company will appeal the order and fines to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board within the next 30 days.

Featured image: Puyallup River water rushes through the Electron Hydro dam. (Photo courtesy Electron Hydro, LLC)

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