In what's believed to be the first new lawsuit against Pruitt in his role as EPA administrator, the Hood River group demanded the EPA act under the Clean Water Act to protect salmon from dangerously high summertime temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, outlines a long history of the agency ignoring high temperatures in the rivers, culminating in the summer of 2015 when “roughly 250,000 adult sockeye salmon died in the Columbia and Snake rivers because warm water prevented them from successfully migrating upstream.”
The suit said the EPA itself had concluded in 2003 that dams on the rivers, which create shallow reservoirs that heat up in the summer sun, are primarily responsible for the high temperatures.
“Temperature pollution killed those fish,” Brett VandenHeuvel, the group’s executive director, said in an interview. “If had been mercury or PCB poisoning, or an oil spill, everybody would have been up in arms and there would have been immediate action. But because it’s high temperatures, it’s ignored.”
Columbia Riverkeeper was joined in the suit by Idaho Rivers United, Snake River Waterkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times over the Obama administration’s regulation of pollution, carbon emissions, wetlands and other issues.
Formally, the suit is calling for the EPA to issue a total maximum daily load, or TMDL, for temperature pollution in the river within a year.
The EPA embarked on doing just that in 2000, the lawsuit said, but then abandoned the process in 2003.
A TMDL would require the agency to develop a plan to deal with the high temperatures, which are being exacerbated by climate change, Columbia Riverkeeper said.
“What that plan will look like, we don’t know, but the dams are a big part of it,” VandenHeuvel said. “We don’t anticipate mainstem Columbia dam removal — nobody is talking about that. But we can change the operations of the dam where temperature is a big part of the equation, instead of being ignored.”
VandenHeuvel acknowledged that could mean less hydropower production, although he said the amount would be relatively small.
A spokesman in the EPA’s Seattle office said it's agency policy not to comment on pending litigation.
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