Butte Co. DA files environmental lawsuit against DWR

Butte Co. DA files environmental lawsuit against DWR

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey announced on Wednesday that he will be filing a civil complaint against the California Department of Water Resources.

Ramsey alleges that the DWR's operation of the Oroville Dam, and its associated spillways, caused environmental damages to the Feather River.

A cornerstone of the complaint alleges that the DWR violated the Fish and Game Code section 5650 "by unlawfully depositing, permitting to pass into, and placing where it may pass into the waters of the State of California, any lime, slag and deleterious substances and materials deleterious to fish, plant, mammals and bird life."

In the court documents, Ramsey states that during the spillway crisis, Feb. 7-27, erosion caused by the heightened release of water put some of these substances into the river.

The complaint continues to allege a history of neglect and malfeasance by the DWR that led up to the spillway crisis in 2017.

D.A. Ramsey noted that civil penalties can range upwards of $51 billion for the 1,700,000 cubic yards of soil, concrete and other material dumped into the Feather River.

"Basically, you dump, you're liable," Ramsey said during a press conference announcing this lawsuit, Wednesday.

Ramsey said that material caused irreparable damages and came to the $51 billion by doing simple arithmetic. Fish and Game code charges $10 for every pound of dumped sand, gravel and concrete. Every one of the 1.7 million cubic yards weighs 2-3 thousand pounds, which equals $34 - $51 billion.

To understand a scope of how much material this is, Ramsey said to stack each cubic yard, one after the other. "You'll go 965 miles to the east of Denver," he said.

Substantial in itself, but Ramsey said the tough part is usually proving that the material dumped was so excessive that it killed water habitat, both the fish and their food. But pointing to the Independent Forensic Team's report released in January, Ramsey said, "this is our evidence in this case."

The report determined that the spillway's original design and inadequate maintenance contributed to that failure. "Which then led to a cascade of events that massively damaged and polluted the Feather River," Ramsey finished.

Though the DWR has already committed resources to removing at least some of that material, the district attorney said that's simply not enough.

"An analogy is you go and rob a bank and then later you try to give the money back," Ramsey proposed. "That doesn't count for the robbery that you've committed and the damage that you have done."

DWR said it does not respond to pending litigation.

Read the full complaint and the Fish and Game code below:

California Fish & Game Code:

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