GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP)—A $1 billion lawsuit filed Thursday claims that PacifiCorp hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River produce hazardous waste in the form of toxic algae that harms salmon as well as people.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by Klamath Riverkeeper, elders of the Yurok and Karuk tribes, and the owner of rental cabins along the river.
"PacifiCorp is both creating and releasing this algae, and they are refusing to take responsibility for the pollution their dams are creating," said Regina Chichizola of Klamath Riverkeeper, a nonprofit river conservation group.
PacifiCorp considers the algae a natural result of agricultural wastes running into the reservoirs, and not a hazardous waste created by the dams, spokeswoman Jan Mitchell said.
The utility is funding studies of the algae in the reservoirs and is working with others to find ways to reduce it, she added.
Noting that the law invoked in the lawsuit is designed to address municipal wastes, Mitchell said the lawsuit appeared to be a public relations strategy, not a legal one.
The lawsuit is the fourth filed by Klamath Riverkeeper against PacifiCorp in a campaign to remove four dams that block hundreds of miles of salmon habitat.
This one seeks $1 billion in damages under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which governs hazardous waste disposal, and a court order for PacifiCorp to stop producing the algae, which could require removing the dams.
The argument is that the Iron Gate and Copco dams south of the Oregon border in Northern California create the perfect conditions for the toxic algae Microcystis aeruginosa by slowing and warming the Klamath River in reservoirs, where the water absorbs agricultural runoff that help the algae grow.
"No one has brought this kind of case pertaining to solid waste, but we think the facts fit the law," said attorney Daniel Cooper of the San Francisco group Lawyers for Clean Water.
"There are areas with algae problems around the state and the country," he said. "The unique factor about the Klamath is there has been extensive sampling demonstrating that highly toxic levels accumulate in the reservoirs and are discharging in the river. And they sampled upstream reservoirs and found no detectable levels of the (algae)."
Flowing out of southern Oregon through Northern California, the Klamath was once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, but has suffered from dwindling returns because of a long history of habitat lost to logging, mining, agriculture, dams, poor water quality and overfishing.
Studies by the Karuk tribe led to toxic algae warnings posted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on the Copco and Iron Gate reservoirs in 2005. Last fall, similar warnings were posted along 100 miles of the Klamath River downstream from Iron Gate.
No one has died from contact with the algae, which produces a toxin that harms the liver and produces tumors, but some of the plaintiffs have suffered symptoms consistent with contact with the toxin after being in the river, Cooper said.
Earlier lawsuits claim waste discharges from the Iron Gate fish hatchery violate the Clean Water Act, the algae is a public nuisance, and EPA has failed to take steps to clean up the river.
PacifiCorp is seeking a new federal license to produce electricity from the dams. The algae is likely to be an issue in meeting clean water standards for the license.
The utility is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., based in Des Moines, Iowa, and controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett.
Jeff Barnard is an environmental reporter at The Associated Press.