Russell Dam's reversible turbines could be in full operation by late summer now that a U.S. District Court ruling has ended a 14-year legal battle that could have mothballed them forever.
"Like everybody else, we had no idea the decision was coming down - or in whose favor it might be," said Bill Lynch, the project manager at the $618 million Army Corps of Engineers lake. "But we're ready to move forward."
Russell Dam, which empties into Thurmond Lake above Augusta, has four conventional turbines and four reversible units that pump water from Thurmond back into Russell for reuse during peak power demand.
Because such technology kills fish, the Corps was sued by the state of South Carolina and its chapter of the National Wildlife Federation. Georgia later joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff.
The resulting injunction in 1988 barred the Corps from using the reversible turbines to produce commercial power unless studies proved they would not harm the environment.
After 14 years and $34 million in environmental testing and fish-protection measures, U.S. District Judge Falcon Hawkins ruled earlier this month that the Corps has properly addressed all concerns.
"This court concludes the Corps has thoroughly studied and evaluated the potential threat to fish life," Judge Hawkins wrote in lifting the 14-year-old injunction.
Mr. Lynch said Corps officials will begin testing the reversible units as early as late May or early June in preparation for a full start-up in July or August.
"We're now developing an action plan to use over the next few months," he said. Fisheries officials in Georgia and South Carolina will be involved in that plan.
The first steps will include underwater inspections of the turbines and special racks built to keep fish away from intakes. Those inspections could begin as early as this week.
The reversible units haven't operated in almost six years and will be phased in gradually and with thorough testing, Mr. Lynch said.
"We're thinking 30- and 60-minute short pump runs," he said.
The Corps also intends to honor its commitment to build a $4.5 million oxygenation plant about five miles upstream from Thurmond Dam to improve striped-bass habitat.
The cryogenic facility would release liquid oxygen through injection pipes in the bottom of the lake. Oxygenated water is attractive to large sportfish such as striped bass.
The Corps agreed to that project because the reversible pumping could elevate water temperatures in portions of Thurmond Lake preferred by stripers.
Other restrictions the Corps agreed to include: pumping in the reversible mode only at night, limiting springtime pumping because of fish spawning, and using only two reversible units June through September during the first few years.
Despite the Corps' assurances, plaintiffs in the case remain concerned that the judge's ruling is a defeat for anglers.
"I know a lot of the fishing community is very disappointed in this," said Angela Viney, the executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. "My reaction to this ruling was one of surprise."
John Biagi, assistant chief of fisheries for Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, said he is unsure whether any appeals will be filed.
"We're concerned about losing stripers, the striped bass and the hybrid fisheries in Clarks Hill reservoir," he said. "I understand the Corps is taking measures to mitigate and minimize those impacts, and we hope those measure will prove successful."
Ms. Viney said the plaintiffs have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the case further. No decision has been made, she said.
1966: Congress authorizes the Trotter Shoals hydropower project, later renamed in honor of Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.)
1979: Work begins on the powerhouse and turbine housing areas that later would be fitted with both conventional and reversible turbines.
1986: The Army Corps of Engineers announces plans to award contracts for reversible turbines, in addition to the conventional units.
1988: South Carolina and that state's Wildlife Federation chapter, citing the likelihood of fish kills, sues the Corps to halt the project.
1988: A judge issues an injunction against operating the turbines for commercial power unless the Corps could prove they were safe.
1992: The completed turbines are tested for the first time, killing 56,000 fish in three hours; further tests were suspended.
1993: Three additional tests kill more than 274,000 fish, prompting concern from the governors of Georgia and South Carolina.
1995: More tests kill 360,000 fish in four nights and 1,264,000 fish during March and April.
1996: Seven months of testing kill an estimated 3.8 million fish.
1999: The Corps releases a report claiming its $34 million in environmental studies and fish protection measures will avoid environmental harm.
2000: The Corps asks a federal judge to lift the injunction. Georgia, previously uninvolved in the litigation, joins as a third plaintiff.
2002: U.S. District Judge Falcon Hawkins rules in the Corps' favor after concluding that all environmental concerns were addressed. The injunction was lifted, clearing the way for commercial use of the turbines.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or email@example.com.