After a decade of debate -- and $34 million in environmental tests and related programs -- the Army Corps of Engineers is ready to operate Russell Dam's reversible hydropower turbines.
On Monday, the corps issued a "Finding of No Significant Impact" statement for the $600 million project, and announced plans to ask a federal judge for permission to operate the project.
The dam on the Savannah River has four reversible turbines built to 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. The fish kills sparked a 1988 lawsuit against the Corps by the state of South Carolina and the National Wildlife Federation.
The plaintiffs won an injunction requiring the Corps to prove the turbines can be used safely before the dam can produce commercial hydropower.
The Corps said it believes it now has that proof.
"We've completed the environmental review process and we believe we've thoroughly addressed the issues," said Corps spokesman Jim Parker.
Corps officials acknowledge the turbines would kill millions of fish per year. But those fish are less than 1 percent of Thurmond Lake's fish population, and the numbers are not significant, the finding said.
The Corps will limit use of the turbines to reduce fish kills, according to the statement. The limitations include using only one unit in March, no units in April and one unit in May.
The Corps also plans to install a $4.5 million oxygenation system near Thurmond Dam to expand habitat for striped bass and will continue testing the system for seven years to evaluate any impacts on Thurmond Lake.
Later this year, the Corps will petition a U.S. District Court judge to lift the injunction against the project.
Monday's signing of the Finding of No Significant Impact statement ended two years of settlement negotiations between the Corps and plaintiffs.
Despite efforts by U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and Assistant Secretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, those negotiations were unsuccessful.
Buford Mabry, South Carolina's chief counsel, said Monday he has not yet reviewed the Corps' newest findings and would issue a response later.