Originally created 08/07/99

Corps of Engineers halts fish-kill talks



The Army Corps of Engineers has halted negotiations with South Carolina over a possible settlement to an 11-year-old lawsuit involving fish kills caused by Russell Dam's reversible turbines.

"I had hoped we could reach an agreement on these issues," wrote Joseph Westphal, the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, in a letter sent this week to Gov. Jim Hodges. "I regret that this has not been possible."

Dr. Westphal -- whose command includes the Corps -- traveled to Columbia in April to meet Mr. Hodges to discuss the $600 million hydropower project on the Savannah River.

Russell Dam's four reversible turbines pump water from Thurmond Lake back to Lake Russell at night for reuse in power production during the day, when electricity is more valuable.

When the turbines are reversed, fish are sucked inside and killed. South Carolina authorities contend those fish kills harm the environment.

But the Corps claims the baitfish that would die each year are less than 1 percent of Thurmond Lake's fish population.

The Corps has proposed operating restrictions to reduce environmental damage, and offered to finance an oxygenation system in Thurmond Lake to improve striped bass habitat.

South Carolina and Georgia officials call the restrictions and mitigation measures inadequate.

The meetings held in April, organized by U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and other politicians, were a last-ditch bid to end a suit filed by South Carolina and the National Wildlife Federation 11 years ago.

According to Dr. Westphal's letter, the Corps cannot honor South Carolina's demands for long-term commitments giving the state legal authority to enforce any final operating agreement.

Now the Corps plans to return to U.S. District Court to ask a judge to lift a 1988 injunction barring commercial use of the turbines without proof they can be used safely, Dr. Westphal write.

Nina Brook, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hodges, said the state is evaluating Dr. Westphal's letter, but has not yet responded.

Robert Pavey covers environmental issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.