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Tribal Leaders, Fishermen and Business Owners Sue Over Klamath River Toxins

SAN FRANCISCO — A group of Klamath River tribal leaders, commercial fishermen and recreational business owners filed suit today against PacifiCorp, contending that two of its dams in Northern California are the cause of massive blooms of toxic algae that are decimating the salmon fishery and causing an extreme potential health hazard to humans. The group retained nationally-known trial lawyers to file the suit in the United States District Court in San Francisco, which has jurisdiction over all of Northern California.

“These dams are having a devastating impact on the economies and cultures of Native Americans and others who depend on the Klamath River,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., of Kennedy & Madonna of Hurley, New York, co-counsel in the case who has successfully represented Riverkeeper of New York in fighting pollution in the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.

Kennedy also serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and as President of the Waterkeeper Alliance based in Irvington, New York.

One of the main claims of the suit is that the “ceremonies and substance fishing for Yurok and Karuk tribes are under siege because of the deadly toxins created by PacifiCorp’s dams,” said Joseph W. Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy of Burlingame, California, Kennedy’s co-counsel and recognized nationally for his firm’s representation of socially just causes.

The lawsuit contends the reservoirs behind the Iron Gate and Copco dams in Northern California near the Oregon border are a toxic nuisance and that Portland-based PacifiCorp should be enjoined from operating them in a way that causes the annual toxic blooms because of improper intake and release of water. “PacifiCorp’s operation of the dams raises water temperatures in the reservoirs well above natural levels” resulting in the algae’s growth “so much so that a layer of toxic scum now covers the reservoirs from July through October,” the suit said.

The suit was filed on behalf of Yurok and Karuk tribal leaders, commercial salmon fishermen, river recreation business owners and the Klamath Riverkeeper group.

The suit said that for at least the last six years, PacifiCorp has been aware of the toxic algae blooms but has failed to correct the situation. According to co-counsel Daniel G. Cooper of Lawyers for Clean Water Inc. of San Francisco, “The algae’s effects go far beyond the annual toxic blooms – it poses a threat to the fishery and human health, because it generates a potent liver toxin and tumor promoter known as a microcystin.”

Regina Chichizola of the Klamath Riverkeeper said the dams “are creating and releasing toxic algae in concentrations 4,000 times what is safe for contact according to the World Health Organization. For the local tribes and many business owners, these dams are robbing river and coastal communities of their livelihoods and causing potential health problems for the local population.”

One of the plaintiffs is Michael T. Hudson, a Berkeley resident who fishes out of Half Moon Bay and is president of the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association. He called the situation “a major environmental emergency, as evidenced by the fact that just last year low returns of Klamath salmon prompted fisheries managers to ban nearly all commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of coastline from Monterey Bay to Coos Bay, Oregon.”

PacifiCorp, whose hydroelectric operations provide power to customers in Oregon and California, was acquired by MidAmerican Energy in 2006. MidAmerican is controlled, in turn, by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment group.

According to plaintiff Leaf Hillman, a ceremonial leader from the Karuk Tribe, tribal members and fishermen transported two Native American dugout canoes to Omaha where Berkshire Hathaway shareholders are meeting May 4-5. “We hope to talk to the shareholders and gain the company’s and Warren Buffett’s support to do the right thing and correct the situation,” Hillman said. “Warren Buffett is a decent man who will understand our plight and as the new owner of the dam, we ask that he consider our petition.”