‘Friend of Hanford’ at odds with community leaders on breaching dams

An Idaho congressman is a well- known supporter of Hanford funding, but his ambitious plan to rescue salmon by breaching the four Lower Snake River dams is creating an awkward moment for his friends in the Tri-Cities.

U.S. Rep
Mike Simpson

In February, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, released a $33.5 billion plan to remove the four dams, calling the current approach an “unsustainable cycle of conflicts.” His proposal lays out a path to remove the dams, which are in Washington state, to prevent salmon from going extinct.

It comes with a heavy price tag to compensate communities along the Columbia River, including the Tri-Cities, for the loss.

But it put him at odds with the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC) and other local business and government groups that oppose removing the dams even with new money attached.

TRIDEC and other groups may disagree with Simpson, but they’re in lockstep on another important local issue: Federal funding for the Hanford cleanup.

Simpson has been a good friend to the Hanford nuclear reservation and is the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, where he is able to influence funding.

“Congressman Simpson has been a huge friend to the Tri-Cities,” said Karl Dye, president and chief executive officer of the Tri-City Industrial Council (TRIDEC).

Karl Dye

TRIDEC is the region’s economic development agency and employs a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to advocate on the area’s behalf, which includes a heavy focus on pushing for Hanford funding.

As part of its economic development mission, TRIDEC devotes considerable resources to defending the four dams from would-be breachers. In January, TRIDEC helped to organize a Know the Dam Facts event.

TRIDEC isn’t supporting Simpson’s vision. The dams are too critical for energy, navigation and irrigation to lose.

But the difference of opinion need not breach a good working relationship, say TRIDEC officials and the Mid-Columbia’s representative in Congress, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.

Newhouse reiterated his unconditional support for preserving the dams and said Simpson’s proposal won’t affect a long and friendly relationship.

“I am confident that we will continue to maintain our effective working relationship despite our disagreement on his proposal,” Newhouse said in a statement released by his spokeswoman.

TRIDEC and other local organizations registered their opposition in a letter drafted by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) and sent to the Northwest’s Congressional delegation.

Breaching would disrupt a system that is “foundational” to the Northwest economy, it said.

“Though certainly well-intentioned, Rep. Simpson’s proposal would set the Northwest on a path toward higher emissions, less energy certainty and a continued narrow focus on four dams with outstanding fish passage,” it said.

In addition to TRIDEC, the Benton and Franklin public utility districts, the city of Richland, ports of Benton, Pasco, Walla Walla and Morrow, Tri-City Regional and Pasco chambers of commerce and Visit Tri-Cities signed the PNWA letter, as did Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Washington Grain Commission and Washington State Potato Commission.

Still, opposing Simpson on a topic about which he is passionate – salmon – requires a delicate touch.

Tim Peckinpaugh, a partner with K&L Gates, is TRIDEC’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Peckinpaugh advised tact during a recent focus on Hanford during Dye’s weekly “Coffee with Karl” Zoom program. Like Dye, Peckinpaugh said Simpson is a good friend to Hanford.

But, he noted, Simpson faces opposition in his home state. The Republican-led Idaho Senate passed a resolution opposing the removal or breaching of the dams on March 9.

Reactions elsewhere are mixed, with some environmental groups expressing interest and others registering concern about details of the plan.

The governors of Washington and Oregon and many regional tribes including the Yakama Nation have expressed support, but four Democratic senators who represent Washington and Oregon have been noncommittal.

In his remarks to TRIDEC, Peckinpaugh anticipated Simpson will push to add breaching the four dams in the $2 trillion “Build Back Better” recovery plan, which was released by President Joe Biden in late March.

No one has suggested Simpson will withdraw support for Hanford over his dam plan if locals don’t support him. His office could not be reached for comment.

And locally, officials call it an example of agreeing to disagree.

“Sometimes we might not agree but we can work on other issues together,” said Dye, who said he respected Simpson’s years-long effort to build a consensus on the subject by speaking with many groups.

“He came up with an expensive solution to offset the costs. We just can’t sign onto it,” he said.

David Reeploeg

David Reeploeg, TRIDEC’s vice president for federal programs, said Simpson’s approach was spot on.

“He took a very thoughtful and long-term approach to studying the facets of the system. But we disagree with his conclusion that a compromise should include removing the dams,” he said.

The Simpson proposal at a glance:

Licenses for dams on the Columbia River system would be extended 35-50 years, with a 35-year moratorium on litigation related to the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections. Funds would be provided to replace the lost energy, with new power coming online before the dams are decommissioned. The plan provides money to restore the waterfront at Lewiston-Clarkston and establishes economic development funds and tourism funds for both the Tri-Cities and Lewiston-Clarkston.

Go to simpson.house.gov/salmon.

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