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Dam removal supporters dominate FERC hearing

By JESSE BURKHARDT

Special to the News

White Salmon Enterprise

As anticipated, a variety of diverging viewpoints were presented at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) public hearing regarding the proposed removal of Condit Dam.

The March 13 hearing, held at Hood River's Best Western Inn, attracted hundreds. The event packed the Columbia Room, a large meeting hall that seats about 300.

Approximately 50 speakers offered their views on the controversial issue of what should happen to the dam, with a majority of those offering comments expressing support for decommissioning and removing the hydroelectric facility.

The dam is owned by PacifiCorp, a Portland-based utility.

Proponents of dam removal cited several benefits to taking out the dam, including: Taking action to preserve salmon runs; enhancing tourism due to increased fishing opportunities and improved white-water rafting; job creation from the dam removal project; and safety benefits because the dam is 90 years old and could fail.

Those who advocated leaving the dam in place pointed to the importance of maintaining a clean source of hydroelectric power; loss of the existing trout population above the dam; severe damage to the lower three miles of the river due to silt and other debris draining down; and the loss of Northwestern Lake, a treasured recreational resource.

Due to the large number who wished to speak, each person was allowed a maximum of three minutes to state their case.

The hearing, which started at 7 p.m., proceeded calmly for most of the evening. However, at approximately 9:15 p.m. it temporarily degenerated into a clash of ideas. A confrontation began when two individuals -- Dan Dancer of Mosier and Cosmos Worth of Hood River -- advised the FERC staff that they planned to use their three minutes to play acoustic guitars and sing to demonstrate support for taking out Condit Dam to help the salmon.

Although FERC representatives had no objection to that approach, some people apparently did: When Dancer and Worth began singing, one of the supporters of leaving Condit Dam in place stated that he did not believe song was appropriate for the hearing.

"I object to this," the unidentified man said. "This is not a demonstration."

Nicholas Jayjack, FERC's Washington, D.C.-based project coordinator for the Condit Dam case, responded that the meeting was a federal hearing, and the song was acceptable if held within the allotted three minutes. However, when the pair tried to sing, a group of about 20 dam supporters stood and spontaneously began singing "God Bless America," drowning out Worth and Dancer.

At that point, Jayjack warned the group that the meeting would be adjourned if they did not allow Dancer and Worth to be heard.

When the protest continued, Jayjack moved to adjourn the hearing.

However, Ann Miles, the lead FERC representative at the hearing, overruled Jayjack and said all those who wanted to testify could do so. She strongly emphasized that everyone had a right to be heard, and those who could not accept that would be asked to leave.

Afterward, Dancer said the protest only made them more determined.

"We weren't going to walk away," Dancer said. "We weren't going to be denied our voice by people who were afraid of that or had a feeling that it somehow wasn't American."

Dancer added that he thought the use of "God Bless America" to try to muffle their views was misguided.

"I love `God Bless America'," Dancer explained. "It's a great song. It's a shame they had to make it into an `us versus them' situation."

One of the strong opponents of dam removal, Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck, said he too was disappointed in the actions of those who didn't want to allow the singing.

"I hate to see personal feelings come out when you have a difference of opinion," Struck said. "I hate to see those things displayed. It is an emotional issue, but there is something to be said for both sides of it."

Before the incident, many citizens gave their opinions on why they believed Condit Dam should stay or go.

Commissioner Struck was one of the first to speak. He said he believed the proposed dam removal plan was "fundamentally flawed."

"If this project is allowed to go forward, there will be permanent negative impacts on the people of Klickitat and Skamania counties," Struck said. "In 1996, the idea of sluicing the sediment downstream was rejected. What has changed?"

Perhaps the most personal and heartfelt statements came from individuals with diametrically opposed opinions on the fate of Condit Dam.

Lifelong White Salmon resident Jim Fritchey appealed to FERC to keep the dam in place.

"I was born in the White Salmon area," Fritchey said. "Condit Dam and Northwestern Lake is part of my heritage. I fished in there and boated in there, and I am against dam removal and destruction of three and a half miles of river below the dam. This isn't about fish -- it's about removing dams in a domino effect. If this one is gone, there is going to be another gone, and another gone."

On the other side of the spectrum, tribal leader Johnny Jackson said he had lived along the Columbia River all his life.

"I live at the mouth of the Big White Salmon, and before me my ancestors lived there," Jackson said. "It was a village site, not an `in-lieu' site. We fished there every fall."

Jackson added that he was concerned about the condition of the aging dam.

"It was 1913 the dam was put in," he explained. "People all over the country are concerned about highway bridges falling down, and for safety reasons they are replacing them. Yet a lot of people think the dam should continue with cracks in it."

Vic Clausen, a Trout Lake resident, endorsed the 1999 deal in which PacifiCorp, tribal leaders, and environmental groups agreed to remove the dam in 2006.

"The settlement agreement is the best way to go," Clausen said. "I hope the FERC staff will continue to recommend the Settlement Agreement, and the FERC commissioners will support it."

Wayne Lease, a Northwestern Lake resident, said he thought the proposed dam removal deal was all about money.

"The dam removal agreement was contrived behind closed doors, with overzealous signatories whose only concern was, `how much can I get?'" Lease said. "It is the obligation of FERC to hold PacifiCorp accountable."

Gail Miller, PacifiCorp's project manager, said her company was acting out of economic realities.

"Project removal is the best decision for our customers," she stated.

Frank Backus, representing SDS Lumber Co., noted that draining the lake could have negative repercussions for SDS, which owns land adjacent to PacifiCorp's Northwestern Lake property.

"We believe there will be significantly more silt than expected, and recovery will take far longer due to sidewall erosion," Backus said. "If the erosion goes back far enough, it will affect our land value and our property."

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