By Ernest A. Jasmin, Puyallup Tribal News Editor
In February, Electron Hydro LLC and Chief Operating Officer Thom Fischer pleaded guilty to a single criminal count in connection with polluting the Puyallup River in 2020.
The plea concluded a case brought by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson that relied on evidence gathered by the Puyallup Tribe in its efforts to document the impact of illegally dumped artificial turf at the site of Electron Hydro’s 120-year-old dam near Mount Rainier National Park.
The company placed old turf into a temporary flow bypass channel during the summer of 2020, topping it with a plastic liner for a construction project; but the liner was torn, releasing large amounts of polyethylene and rubber debris into the current.
The court filing noted that University of Washington Tacoma Center for Urban Waters researchers tested samples of recovered turf and crumb rubber and discovered that it contained chemicals found in tires, including one that is “extremely toxic” to Coho salmon.
Tribal Fisheries staff members have documented this pollution with more than 2,200 images and videos. They say they have recovered plastic turf, sheeting, geotechnical fabric, and crumb rubber from as far as 41 miles downstream from the dam, and these harmful materials still remain in the Puyallup River.
The Attorney General recommended fines totaling $1 million, including $745,000 to be used for projects that protect the health of the Puyallup River and a $255,000 fine that would be paid to Pierce County. Ferguson’s office pledged to work with the Puyallup Tribe to identify worthy projects that will benefit from these funds.
However, the resulting count is just one of dozens of misdemeanor charges that the AG initially filed against Electron Hydro in Pierce County Superior Court, and the Tribe criticized potential punishments the company faces as insufficient.
“The guilty plea to just one of 36 counts in this case does not bring justice compared to the harm caused and the damage to the Tribe’s natural resources,” Tribal Council said in a statement responding to the plea.
“The company has not cleaned up its mess, and now its Canadian owner will simply write a check to go back to business as normal—a check that amounts to approximately one month’s revenue for the facility when it was operating.”
The charge that Fischer pleaded guilty to can also carry up to a year in jail, but the state agreed not to recommend jail time, according to the Associated Press. Instead, the Attorney General recommended that Fischer complete two years of probation for a suspended 364-day sentence.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorensen has set a hearing for May 5 to determine sentencing.
The Tribe is also co-party with the Environmental Protection Agency in ongoing litigation for violations of the Clean Water Act and has ongoing federal civil litigation case against the dam for violating the Endangered Species Act. Those cases are expected to go to trial in the fall and in spring 2024, respectively.