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Know the West

Groups are wary of aluminum companies bearing gifts


Are Northwest aluminum companies, intent on diverting attention from salmon-killing dams, offering bribes to environmental groups to join frivolous suits against the fishing industry? Some environmentalists think so.

Last spring, aluminum companies filed a federal suit to block commercial fishing in the lower Columbia River, claiming the fishing was wiping out too many threatened chinook salmon.

Federal Judge Malcolm Marsh, who handles salmon litigation much the same as Judge William Dwyer oversees Northwest timber cases, threw out the suit. He said the companies lacked standing because their primary interest was in preserving low-cost, subsidized hydroelectric power from Columbia River dams.

Similarly, last February, Marsh rejected a suit filed by Kenneth Peterson, owner of Columbia Aluminum Co. in Vancouver, Wash. He had argued that commercial fishing was ruining his chances of enjoying salmon in the future.

Unable to persuade a judge to consider his plea, Peterson is now trying to rally other groups to go after the fishing trade. In late January, Peterson sent letters to 25 environmental groups, offering them money if they file a lawsuit aimed at stopping commercial fishing on the Columbia.

"The time is short and we are in an emergency," Peterson wrote. "Would your organization file such a suit? I would be happy to contribute money for such an action."

Many environmental groups agree that commercial fishing is hurting the salmon. "It is not appropriate to continue these harvests," says Geoff Pampush, executive director of Oregon Trout, a sport fishing group which has advocated a variety of measures aimed at restoring dwindling salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest.

But Pampush, who received Peterson's pitch on Jan. 31, refuses to bite. The aluminum companies, he says, are far more responsible for the "indiscriminate slaughter" than anyone else, given their large consumption of electricity produced at salmon-killing dams. Pampush says the dams are responsible for the deaths of up to 95 percent of salmon killed by non-natural causes.

"The aluminum companies continue to deny and point fingers while not taking responsibility for the major cause of mortality of these fish," Pampush says. "There is no way we'd be interested in doing their bidding in a war against commercial fishing."

The Oregon Natural Resources Council also declined. The council hopes to save salmon by eliminating subsidies to the aluminum industry as well as knocking down several major fish-killing dams (HCN, 2/7/94). Andy Kerr, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, wrote Peterson: "My price is much higher. The only thing I would consider is the end of the aluminum industry."

Meanwhile, the aluminum companies have taken their case to the court of public opinion. Large ads in The Oregonian newspaper state that "while we pay millions of dollars to recover threatened and endangered wild salmon, fisheries management agencies have once again sanctioned harvest of these fish on the Columbia River."

The writer lives in Portland, Oregon.