A flood-related incident that sent piece of artificial turf into the Puyallup River has resulted in the Puyallup Tribe demanding the historic Electron Hydro dam be torn down.
Historic Early Hydro Project
The Electron Hydro project consists of the Headworks dam, an artificial diversion flume, and the power plant 10 miles downriver. They were completed in 1904 by the pioneering electrical engineering firm Stone & Webster, which was instrumental in the development of much of America’s energy infrastructure.
The power plant still houses the original 15-foot-diameter generators made by Thomas Edison and Pelton wheels, highly efficient, impulse-type water turbines.
Electron Hydro bought the facility Puget Sound Power & Light in 2014 and had been working to improve relations with the Puyallup tribe in recent years, upgrading and renovating the facility to preserve the historic dam and 26 megawatt hydroelectric plant on the Puyallup River 6 miles from the glacier terminus on Mount Rainier, while improving the ability of salmon and trout to travel the river’s entire length.
A diversion dam was installed to divert silty glacial water away from a construction site during renovations.
Without first getting specific approval and having its permit properly amended, Electron Hydro installed artificial turf (Astro-turf) with crumb rubber underneath the plastic liner being placed beneath and alongside the fish bypass channel, in order prevent or minimize prevent erosion and run-off.
A series of heavy storms struck the region in July 2021. Heavy water flow dislodged boulders and sediment on Mount Rainier, ripping a hole in the liner and send 617 square yards of Astro-turf and an estimated 4-6 cubic yards of crumb rubber downstream.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2015 affirmed its 2008 determination that Astro-turf poses no risk, even to young children playing artificial turf fields. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began promoting the use of rubber crumbs on athletic fields and on playground surfaces in 1995 to help create markets for recycled car and truck tires.
Despite federal approval of Astro-turf and crumb rubber surfaces as safe, Washington state courts have ruled the artificial turf to be toxic.
The Washington Department of Ecology fined the company $501,000 for discharging plastic sports turf into the Puyallup River.
In the fall of 2020, the Puyallup tribe, which owns and manages the fishing rights in the river, demanded the dam be removed on grounds that its continued existence and operation threatens salmon and trout survival and the tribes’ livelihood.
Also, after the Astro-turf incident, Puget Sound issued a notice of intent to sue and cancel its power purchase agreement with Electron Hydro.
‘Mindless Attacks on Hydropower’
This incident has been blown out of proportion and should not threaten the continued operation of this historic dam and power plant, says engineer Thom Fischer, CEO of Electron Hydro.
“The rationale for the construction project was in part to change the conversation between hydro operators and fish defenders,” said Fischer. “We have to deal with heavy sediment and boulders released as the glacier on Mount Rainier slowly melts, which clogs fish screens.
“In a project in Alaska, we had designed a diversion structure that allowed dropping an inflatable rubber bladder during floods to enable the bedload to pass through more naturally, adding a the fish screen afterwards,” Fischer said. “But here, we never got that far before the flood damaged the turf bed. And now we cannot finish the project.”
Sadly, Electron Hydro’s own actions may have doomed the historic hydro-dam, Todd Myers, Environmental Director at the Washington Policy Center.
“There are a lot of mindless attacks on hydro power, yet only hydro power proved reliable during the June heat wave that sent temperatures as high as 110o F,” said Myers. “I was initially hopeful about the renovation project, but what Electron Hydro did with the artificial turf destroys the faith anyone might have had about their ability to protect the salmon.”
Duggan Flanakin (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Austin, Texas.