Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Dam owner pleads guilty after spilling turf, tire bits in Puyallup River

caption: Construction work on a bypass channel for the 1903 Electron Dam on the Puyallup River in summer 2020.
Enlarge Icon
Construction work on a bypass channel for the 1903 Electron Dam on the Puyallup River in summer 2020.
Washington Department of Ecology

The head of a hydropower company has pleaded guilty after putting two football fields’ worth of artificial turf in the Puyallup River in Pierce County.

The Washington Attorney General’s office is recommending that Electron Hydro and owner Thom Fischer pay a $1 million penalty for a misdemeanor violation, with most of the money going to help restore the river.

The company put the turf and a plastic liner in the river during in-stream construction work at the century-old Electron Dam in July 2020.

The liner ripped, and turf and shredded tire bits spread as far as Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, 41 miles downstream.

The penalty, which awaits approval by a judge, would come in addition to another $501,000 Electron Hydro agreed to pay the Washington Department of Ecology to improve salmon habitat in the river.

The company is also facing a lawsuit from the Puyallup Tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Fish don’t care about fines and bank accounts. They care about safe, unobstructed passage and clean water,” Puyallup Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud said in a press release after the ecology department issued its fine in June 2021. “The dam must be removed.”

Electron Hydro officials said in a press release on Tuesday that the spill was an unfortunate and unintentional permit violation that the company immediately took responsibility for and worked to clean up.

“Not a single fish has been shown to have died or suffered any injury because of the accident,” the press release states.

Shredded tires are known to be lethal to coho salmon.

“We plan to continue to provide clean energy to our customers, remaining ever mindful of the fragile ecosystem in which we are privileged to go to work each day. The lessons learned from this accident in July 2020 will not be forgotten,” Fischer said in the Electron press release.

“When I took office, very few environmental crimes were criminally prosecuted,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a press release. “Electron Hydro and Thom Fischer’s reckless conduct damaged this waterway and put species like salmon at risk.”

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorensen called the state’s criminal prosecution “a heavy-handed way of addressing what seems to be an administrative issue.”

Sorensen set a May 5 hearing date to determine Fischer’s sentence.

Why you can trust KUOW