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Hazardous waste found at Elk Creek Dam site

Mail Tribune/file photo Interpretive park ranger Joya Szalwinski walks near the remnants of the Elk Creek Dam that is now part of the Elk Creek Trail hiking area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of identifying how much hazardous waste it will have to clean up from the site.

TRAIL — Federal authorities are in the midst of a search and cleanup of perhaps as many as 100 barrels of hazardous materials illegally buried at the former Elk Creek Dam site when construction halted 35 years ago.

With the help of a former dam contractor turned whistleblower, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has found 10 barrels of oil, antifreeze and other solvents reportedly left by the dam’s main contractor when environmental suits scuttled construction of the half-built dam in 1988.

Those barrels were found in 26 test holes dug by the Corps with the help in 2019 of the unidentified whistleblower, who believed as many as 100 such barrels were buried at the site along Elk Creek near its confluence with the Rogue River, the Corps said.

Corps spokesman Tom Conning said the agency is in the midst of a larger inspection and risk assessment, which will include any groundwater contamination and future cleanup needs.

Corps officials do not know how much more illegally buried waste it might unearth there, though there is no current reason to believe the whistleblower’s estimations are wrong, Conning said.

No date for more excavations in search of more hazardous materials was immediately available Thursday, Conning said.

The U.S. Army Corps’ criminal investigative arm is delving into the case, including focusing on the dam’s main contractor at the time, Obayashi Corp., Conning said.

The agency also is continuing work to protect human health and environmental impacts from the illegal dumping and will seek to hold responsible entities liable for the cleanup, Conning said.

The latest findings were publicly released by the Corps Wednesday.

The state Department of Environmental Quality in December fined the Corps, as the landowner, $38,814 for the illegal dumping there.

The Corps has made several investigations and waste removal efforts at the now deauthorized dam site in the past.

The current effort began after the 2019 complaint to DEQ shed light on improper disposal by the Obayashi Corp, according to the Corps.

Elk Creek Dam was authorized by Congress in 1962 as part of a massive and somewhat visionary view to harness the Rogue Basin’s waters, provide protection to sprawling development within the basin’s floodplains, and help wild salmon.

Lost Creek and Applegate dams were completed, but Elk Creek Dam’s construction was halted in 1988 because of environmental lawsuits over impacts to wild spring chinook salmon in the mainstem Rogue River.

The Corps could not legally complete the half-built dam, because it could not create mitigation to offset the warmer waters that would flow out of the reservoir and alter Rogue salmon habitat. So the dam was notched in 2008 to allow fish passage into the upper basin, which is considered important spawning and rearing habitat for federally protected wild steelhead and coho salmon.

The site is now part of a low-intensity recreation area, and parts of the creek drainage once tapped for inundation have been restored.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.