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Native Americans v Scots industrial giant: a $1bn lawsuit is filed in war over salmon

By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent

21 June 2004

One of Britain's most successful companies has become embroiled in a battle between the US government and Native Americans about the destruction of their traditional fishing grounds and treaty rights.

For almost 1,000 years, the Native Americans of the Hoopa, Karuk and Yurok tribes have fished the Klamath river in California for the salmon and other fish that form a large part of their traditional diet and trade.

But increased demand on the waters of the 240-mile long river from southern Oregon into northern California and the Pacific Ocean is endangering their livelihoods.

Chief among their problems are a number of hydroelectric dams operated by PacifiCorp, a Portland-based subsidiary of ScottishPower, which the Klamath tribes claim has ravaged fish stocks. The tribes have now filed a $1bn (550m) lawsuit against PacifiCorp, claiming compensation for loss of their historic treaty rights to fish in the headwaters of the Klamath.

"The tribes' traditional reliance upon salmon for subsistence and trade is undisputed; and the existence of dams blocking salmon passage beginning in 1911 is undisputed," according to documents filed in US District Court.

Built between 1908 and 1962, the dams block the passage of salmon upstream and the tribes fear that, with increasing amounts of water being diverted to irrigate farmland farther north, there will an environmental catastrophe.

Two years ago, the Klamath river, which was the third biggest salmon-producing river in North America, suffered the worst loss of fish in US history as more than 33,000 died because of a shortage of good water.

The tribes, along with fishermen's groups and environmental activists, claim the dams and power stations operated by ScottishPower's subsidiary are to blame because the structures prevent salmon from reaching their natural spawning grounds upriver and reduce the flow of water.

Already this year, the amount of water entering the river system has fallen below expectations, fuelling fears of another massive fish kill.

Environmentalists claim two species of fish once abundant in the Klamath are already extinct, a third is in serious danger and two others have seen a fall in numbers to just 10 per cent of their former populations. Representatives of the tribes claim that now the 50-year-old hydroelectric schemes are up for relicensing in 2006 it would be an ideal opportunity to get them adapted to enable salmon to swim upriver to spawn as they once did.

PacifiCorp says creating salmon passages to the upper basin would be too expensive, costing upwards of $100m just to add new ladders and screens to four of the dams. The company says removal of the dams would spell disaster for farmers in the area, who rely on the water for irrigation. Other changes could be opposed by recreational users.

PacifiCorp, which was taken over by ScottishPower in 1999, operates the dams under the auspices of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the final decision on what happens in the Klamath lies with the regulators, and even if PacifiCorp and its parent company ScottishPower lost the lawsuit they would be able to reclaim their costs from the US government.

The tribes believe that ScottishPower should be held responsible for the actions of its subsidiary. "As the parent company, ScottishPower should be held accountable and uphold its responsibilities to native people," said Merv George Jr, director of the Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission.

Last month, representatives of the tribes said they had written to the board of ScottishPower in Glasgow pleading with it to direct PacifiCorp to enter into settlement negotiations. The Scottish company says it is still waiting to receive the letter.

Dan Israel, one of the tribes' attorneys, said the lawsuit was intended to hold the power company responsible for the changes to the Klamath river that ended the salmon's migration into the upper basin. "It very simply alleges that it blocked the passage of salmon to the Sprague [river] and other spawning grounds," he said.

PacifiCorp has described the lawsuit as a "headline-grabbing stunt" and says four similar lawsuits in recent history involving other north-west power companies including one from the Skokomish tribe against Tacoma Power & Light for $5.8bn have been dismissed. A spokesman for ScottishPower said: "There is strong symbolic element to the claim but we intend to contest it vigorously."

 


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