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Pending City Light Contract Jolts Indian Tribe

The Kalispel Indian Tribe, based 325 miles away from Seattle in rural Pend Oreille County, forced the Seattle city council to table a piece of key legislation last week. The council bill—which would re-up Seattle City Light's important contractual relationship with a Pend Oreille hydroelectric power plant that buys power from Seattle City Light—was postponed after a stern September 20 letter from the tribe arrived on the desk of council energy chair Jean Godden.

The letter's alarming bullet points asked the council to: "determine whether the City is acting in accordance with its policies to respect the rights of Indian tribes and its policies to protect the environment" and "determine whether the city may be exposing itself to liability." (Indeed, in 1999 Seattle was forced to pay nearly $3 million thanks to the Pend Oreille plant's conduct toward theKalispel.)

The Pend Oreille plant, known as Box Canyon, is 24 miles downstream from the Kalispel reservation in the far northeastern corner of Washington State. According to the tribe, Box Canyon, run by the Pend Oreille Public Utilities District (PUD), has not been a good neighbor. "You're dealing with one of the worst PUDs in the country when it comes to respecting the environment and tribal rights," says Deane Osterman, the Kalispel Tribe's director of natural resources.

In a series of court battles dating back to the 1980s, the courts and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have consistently ruled that Box Canyon operations violate the Kalispel's tribal rights by flooding 10 percent of reservation lands—damaging the environment and the Kalispel's fishing reserves. In July 2005, the FERC relicensed Box Canyon to the Pend Oreille PUD under the strict condition that it implement substantial mitigation (like changing the rate that it lowers and raises the water level during operation) and environmental fixes (like restoring the trout habitat). Box canyon tried to upend FERC's mandate by immediately appealing to the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court. The court rejected that appeal last week. But Box Canyon is continuing to appeal the FERC order directly to the federal agency.

"The city is considering entering into an agreement at this time when Box Canyon is still violating the Kalispel's tribal reservation rights," says Seattle attorney Allen Sanders, who represents the Kalispel on matters regarding Box Canyon. "We want to make sure Seattle isn't facilitating or condoning those ongoing violations." [Editor's note: Sanders is Stranger writer Eli Sanders's father.]

Seattle paid for its relationship with Box Canyon in 1999 when a state appeals court ruled that City Light had to pay Box Canyon $2.7 million to compensate the PUD for an earlier federal court judgment against Box Canyon for its violation of tribal rights.

However, City Light spokesman John Prescott maintains that the city will not be liable for any future Box Canyon violations because City Light no longer buys power from Box Canyon (the cause for the $2.7 million liability in 1999). Prescott points out that the contract renewal currently in front of the council concerns the reverse scenario: City Light, which runs its own hydro plant in Pend Oreille—the much more powerful Boundary hydro plant—sells power to Box Canyon. The contract stipulates that Seattle City Light, which won the prized federal license to Boundary back in the 1950s, must make 48 megawatts available to Box Canyon "at cost."

The Kalispel point out that selling "at cost" (read, cheap) power to Box Canyon could help subsidize the plant. Osterman says, for example, that one aspect of the revised contract now in front of the council would allow Box Canyon to sell City Light's Boundary power outside Box Canyon's own service area—where, conceivably, it could make a profit on the cheap northwest power.

"Yes, that's new," says Box Canyon General Manager Bob Geddes. "We'll be able to do whatever we want with the power now." (Geddes also acknowledged that Box Canyon has had legal trouble with the tribe, but said that has "no connection" to its contracts with Seattle.)

Given Box Canyon's losing track record in court cases regarding tribal rights, the Kalispel warn that any financial relationship between Seattle City Light and Box Canyon could create liability issues for Seattle.

Council Member Godden says the council will approve the contracts between Seattle City Light and Box Canyon (the postponed vote will go before full council on October 10). She says it's good for Seattle ratepayers because "it helps the bottom line," and, she says, "it doesn't have any direct affect on the tribe." (Also at issue for the council: City Light needs the Pend Oreille PUD on its side when Seattle petitions the FERC to relicense City Light's Boundary plant—which supplies a whopping 30–40 percent of Seattle's load, and is by far the city's largest source of power.)

Osterman says the current council legislation to re-up with Box Canyon caught the Kalispel by surprise. Now, the tribe is hustling to educate Seattle on Box Canyon's history. "As they enter into a new agreement with Box Canyon, we want them to be cognizant of the effects. I'm not sure they are."

josh@thestranger.com
 

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