Government expects legal action in wake of Elwha River sediment flowing into, clogging water plant
Silt-laden water is pumped from an intake channel for the industrial water treatment plant along the Elwha River last week. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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The $79 million Elwha Water Facilities, which consist of the Elwha Water Treatment Plant and the Elwha Surface Water Intake, have “not functioned as designed in removing sediment and large and small woody debris” from the water, the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor said in an email sent Wednesday to federal officials telling them to keep information in case of a lawsuit.
“This has caused significant damage and delay,” the eight-page email obtained by the Peninsula Daily News says.
“It is unclear how much more will be needed to keep the EWF [Elwha Water Facilities] operational, and it is possible in the near or distant future that EWF will not be able to function,” the document says.
The Port Angeles city drinking water supply remains clear and safe, Public Works Director Glenn Cutler said Friday.
Removal of dams on the Elwha River, which began in September 2011, has created the largest sediment release seen in such a project, said Tim Randle of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Scientists have said the river has moved at least 6 million of the estimated 34 million total cubic yards of sediment that had built up behind the dams.
The National Park Service, or NPS, has told URS Corp. of San Francisco “as the designer of record that there are serious and significant design deficiencies at EWF and that damages are accruing,” according to the email.
“URS has denied responsibility for the problems that are occurring at EWF,” the document said.
Company spokeswoman Pam Blum declined to comment Friday.
The water treatment facilities, located 2.8 miles from the mouth of the river, were built to remove the millions of cubic yards of sediment and woody debris resulting from the takedown of the upstream Glines Canyon and Elwha dams, which began in September 2011.
The Elwha Water Facilities, the largest single component of the $325 million Elwha River restoration project, were constructed to deliver treated water to the Port Angeles Water Treatment Plant, Nippon Paper Industries USA, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal hatchery and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife fish-rearing channel.
But sediment and debris began overwhelming the water intakes last fall, and work to take down the remaining 60 feet of Glines Canyon Dam — the 108-foot Elwha Dam was gone by March 2012 — has been put on hold until at least July after a $1.4 million fix by the Park Service is completed.
The Solicitor’s Office, the legal branch of Interior, is “investigating the design deficiency issue of EWF and anticipates litigation may result,” according to the email.
The document lists three potential avenues of litigation:
■ “The Department of the Interior may explore affirmative litigation with Department of Justice.”
■ “URS may appeal a final Contracting Officer decision letter assessing costs and damages associated with correcting EWF, dam removal delay or other costs.”
■ “Or one of the water users identified above may file suit against the United States for damages experienced at their water systems and to their water customers (e.g., the citizens of Port Angeles).”
Said Port Angeles City Manager Dan McKeen on Saturday: “We are not considering any legal action at this time” regarding the Elwha water facilities.
The Interior document was sent to regional directors and records managers for the National Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and requires 25 employees, including Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum, “to preserve information that may be relevant to the issues surrounding the dispute.”
They are required to sign a statement acknowledging receipt of the communication, referred to in the email as a “litigation hold.”
The records they are required to preserve include paper documents and electronically stored information.
“This information should be stored in such a manner as to be safely retained and accessible in case of future litigation,” according to the email.
The email is signed by five Solicitor’s Office regional attorneys from Portland, Ore.; Boise, Idaho; and Denver.
Creachbaum was not available for comment Friday.
The primary source of water for Port Angeles residents is the city’s Ranney well, which collects both ground water and surface water from a side channel of the Elwha River.
The Elwha Water Facilities were built to filter water before sending it to the $27.6 million Port Angeles Water Treatment Plant, built in 2010, where it would be treated further for city use.
Instead, the city has had to rely more heavily on water from the Ranney well than it had intended because insufficient water was coming from the Elwha facility.
McKeen expressed concerns in March to the National Park Service that city officials were not being kept apprised of the sediment load at the Elwha River Treatment Plant and its impact on city water supplies.
McKeen said Friday he expects city and Olympic National Park staff to meet within the next two weeks “to talk about how to move forward and address those concerns.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz contributed to this report.
Last modified: April 20. 2013 5:42PM