Judge hears salmon-recovery case - Who pays for harm from dams at issue
PORTLAND -- Conservationists and the federal government argued in court yesterday over whether the federal government is responsible for the threatened and endangered salmon that die making their way past hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
A coalition of environmentalists, sports fishermen and Native American tribes argued that the latest federal program for operating the dams under the Endangered Species Act treats the artificial structures as part of the landscape and fails to take responsibility for irreparable harm to the fish.
In their rebuttal in U.S. District Court in Portland, the Justice Department argued that the federal agencies that control the 14 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers cannot be held responsible for the existence of the dams, which predate the passage of the Endangered Species Act.
They can be held responsible only for the extra mortality caused by how the dams are operated, not the mortality based on the existence of the dams, said lawyer Fred Disheroon, representing NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring salmon runs in danger of extinction.
"The statute applies to those things you can stop. You cannot stop operating the hydrosystem," he said.
At the end of the nearly eight-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge James Redden said he intended to issue his decision in May, adding: "It is not an easy decision to make -- and I hope I make the right one."
Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries must decide whether the dams jeopardize the survival of 12 threatened and endangered salmon runs, and if they do, propose ways to overcome the harm.
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