Federal Law Becomes Spawning Ground for Lawsuits

By Tom Bacon

A 33-year old federal law meant to balance seemingly irreconcilable interests in the vast Columbia River system - fish and power - has instead become a spawning ground for lawsuits. 

In the latest iteration of competing interests taking their arguments to court, a federal appeals panel has come down on the side of power production and the agency charged with trying to balance fish and power production. The heart of a case brought by the Northwest Resource Information Center, an environmental group, against the Northwest Power and Conservation Council was deemed insufficient by two of the three judges on the appeal panel.

The environmental group complained that the Northwest Power Council failed to give due consideration to the needs of fish and wildlife in the river basin in its latest regional power plan adopted in 2010.

But the judges also held that the power council failed to allow proper public notice and comment on its method of estimating environmental costs and benefits. And they chided the power group for including in its plan a Bonneville Power Administration estimate that fish restoration projects would cost somewhere between $750 and $900 million a year.

A dissenting judge argued that the cost estimate is perfectly proper even though the environmental group fears it may have a chilling effect on future fish restoration projects. She wrote "a court cannot strike down a sentence in an agony's report because it does not like its spin. We are not yet commissioned to serve as a judicial editorial review board."

The judges noted that the power council's efforts to do its job over the years have been challenged time and again by various stakeholders - environmentalists, power companies, state governments, indian nations and industrial interests.
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