Labor coalition will advocate a balanced approach to save fish

Nine labor unions have formed a coalition with business groups to support near-term, non-dam-destruction methods of saving fish in the Columbia and Snake river systems.

The Coalition for Responsible River Uses (CRRU) met with business leaders and lawmakers June 5 for a first-ever "business/labor rivers summit" at the Oregon Convention Center. Nearly 100 persons participated. Speakers included U.S. Congressman Greg Walden, R-Ore., a co-sponsor of a bill calling for development of a fish restoration plan that does not rely on dam removal.

Also speaking were State Senator Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, chair of the Oregon Legislature's Joint Stream Restoration and Species Recovery Committee, State Representatives Jason Atkinson, R-Medford, Bob Jenson, I-Pendleton, and Randy Leonard, D-Portland.

Members of the Steelworkers Union in The Dalles and Goldendale, Wash., also attended the summit, as did representatives from wheat growers, port commissions and barging companies.

"We're focusing on bringing some balance to the debate over fish survival in the Northwest," said Claud Leinbach, secretary of the United Power Trades Organization (UPTO), a founding member of CRRU.

UPTO is an independent union that represents about 500 workers at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"Certainly, we all agree that we need to save fish, but destroying our dams in the Northwest is not the answer," Leinbach said. "Science suggests that other factors, including predators, foreign overfishing, habitat problems and dams are all part of the problem. We need to adopt a comprehensive approach, not focus on a one size fits all approach."

Jerry Bruce, business manager of Electrical Workers Local 48, noted that "before we scuttle our economy and threaten the jobs of thousands of Northwest workers, we ought to take a closer look at the other factors affecting fish populations. That's what our coalition can do."

Leinbach said proposals to breach four lower Snake River dams could affect an estimated 49,000 jobs.

Besides UPTO, the coalition, is comprised of IBEW Local 48, IBEW Local 125, Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, Iron Workers Local 29, Columbia River Pilots Association, Inland Boatmen's Union, Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council, and the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.

The coalition released the following position paper after the summit:

"Advocates of breaching four lower Snake River and John Day dams argue that this action will restore fish runs and improve the environmental quality of the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, breaching dams does not guarantee that salmon or steelhead runs will be restored. Such action may, in fact, cause more environmental damage than it ultimately cures. If attaining higher levels of environmental quality is the goal, breaching dams is not the answer.

"Dam destruction is not the panacea for decreasing fish populations. Science clearly indicates that dwindling fish runs exist in all Northwest areas, not just in rivers where dams exist. Many outside factors have been proven to adversely affect fish runs. Our focus in restoring fish runs should be to eliminate some of these factors.

"Dam destruction would in many ways increase stress on the environment. By limiting barging of key commodities, dam destruction requires more trains and semi-trucks to transport products and materials. An additional 120,000 rail cars or 700,000 semi-trucks would be needed annually if upriver barge navigation were stopped. This would place a greater strain on highway and railway systems throughout the region, making general travel less efficient and more dangerous.

"Barge transport is much more fuel efficient than rail or truck transport. A ton of commodity goods can move 524 miles by barge on one gallon of fuel, 202 miles by rail, or 59 miles by truck. Further, greenhouse gas emissions are far less when transporting materials by barge than by any other common method. Hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide and nitrous dioxide emissions will increase severalfold if barging is eliminated.

"Hydroelectric power is the cleanest and most environmentally friendly mass-produced power available. The increased use of fossil fuel would increase greenhouse gas levels and solidify the need for onshore and offshore drilling. "Some experts also fear dam removal would disturb much of the sediment trapped behind the dams. This sediment most likely would spread downstream possibly harming the entire river ecosystem. Moreover, drawdowns resulting from dam removal would leave a significant amount of irrigated land dry, destroying current animal and bird habitats and throwing thousands of families out of work.

"Additionally, factors besides dams have been shown to negatively impact fish runs. A downturn in ocean conditions has been cited as a possible reason for declining numbers of salmon and steelhead. Also, predatory birds and animals such as the Caspian tern and marine mammals definitely have contributed to the demise of some fish runs. Up to 25 million salmon smolt may annually fall prey to the terns, according to a recent study. Lastly, overharvesting has plagued fish populations. We must demand a tough Pacific salmon treaty.

"The benefit of dam breaching is highly uncertain. However, the environmental drawbacks are clear. In order to save the salmon and improve environmental quality in the region focus should be placed on implementing scientifically demonstrable solutions. Efforts to control populations of Caspian terns, limit overharvesting and make dams more fish-friendly should be embraced. These are part of a balanced solution that we can all embrace - one that will start reducing fish mortality immediately."

A second summit has tentatively been scheduled for late July. Meantime, members of the coalition will continue gathering information and circulating it to its members, the general public and policymakers nationally.

June 18, 1999 issue

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