Yesterday, Rep. Doc Hastings presided over a hearing in Pasco about a bill he has proposed in Congress that aims to thwart hydropower opponents. The bill would block federal funding from groups that call for dam removal--groups that in his opening remarks he labeled "extremists."
Over the past decade, they changed their tactics from the overt to the more covert - but they are as committed and well-funded as ever. They've poured their money into lawyers and lawsuits aimed at pressuring federal agencies and seeking to advance their agenda in the courts, and particularly in the courtroom of a Portland judge who's now admitted his anti-dam bias.
What Hastings is referring to here is protracted litigation over the proposed dam removal on the Snake River. Like most such cases, the litigation stems from environmentalists' concerns that the dams are impeding salmon runs-- an argument that runs up against strong hydropower support from farmers and trade groups.
In a television interview last spring, the judge who long presided over the Snake River case indicated that he ultimately sided with the environmentalists. "I think we need to take those dams down," U.S. District Court Judge James Redden said.
That may have been the last straw for Hastings, whose Central Washington district takes in part of the Snake River.
But the bill he's introduced would have an effect that goes way beyond what happens in Central Washington, says Jim Bradley, senior director for government relations at the D.C.-based non-profit American Rivers. That's because the bill doesn't only punish groups like his. It also says that no federal dollars can be spent on dam removal projects--or even studying the possibility of such projects--without Congressional approval.
Bradley calls this section of the bill, not as widely known as the section inflicting payback on environmental groups, "really nefarious." He says that there are a lot of "unsafe" dams out there, particularly on the East Coast. "These are dams that date back to the Industrial Revolution," he says. "They generate power in the kilowatt, not the megawatt." Yet even if everybody agrees that they should come down, Hastings' bill would hold such projects up, Bradley claims.
Spencer Pederson, press secretary for the House Committee on Natural Resources, which Hastings chairs and which held the hearing yesterday, counters that it's "common sense" to have Congress control the purse strings on costly projects. Congress could still choose to spend money on dam removals, he says.
Clearly, that's not the intention, though. Yesterday's line up of witnesses leaned heavily in favor of ardent hydropower supporters. "Dam removal will not increase fish survival and would have a significant negative impact on our economy," said Jack Heffling, president of the United Power Trades Organization.