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In a Win for Endangered Salmon, Court Orders Puyallup River Dam Removal

What happened: A federal district court recently ruled that a large portion of Electron Dam must be removed from the Puyallup River in Washington because the dam harms fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Why it matters: Electron Dam has been harming Chinook salmon, steelhead, and trout for nearly 100 years. In 2020, the company that operates the dam tried to replace a spillway and botched the job, creating more hazards for the fish. Earthjustice went to court to press for the new segment’s removal on behalf of the Puyallup Tribe. Salmon and other native fish play a critical role in the Tribe’s culture and economy. With this part of the dam gone, the river will flow naturally for the first time in almost a century.

Case details

  • The Electron dam was constructed in 1904 and has operated on the upper Puyallup River for nearly a century, blocking fish migration.
  • A makeshift dam: In 2020, a renovation project gone wrong sent toxic tire and construction material debris into the river, contaminating the water with the fish-killing chemical 6PPD. The dam’s owners then hastily built a “temporary” metal wall and rock structure to replace a part of the dam they had removed. It impeded the passage of fish and their ability to spawn and harmed juvenile fish migrating downstream.
  • The lawsuit: The dam was illegally harming Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Represented by Earthjustice, the Puyallup Tribe took Electron Hydro LLC to court.
  • The decision: In February 2024, the federal court sided with the Puyallup Tribe and Earthjustice, finding that the rock structure harms fish listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. The judge ordered the company to remove the bulk of the dam by this summer before salmon return to spawn.

Restoring threatened fish  

  • Hurting fish for 100 years: The century-old dam in the upper Puyallup has long been a killer of salmon and has never complied with the Endangered Species Act. The court’s decision will help restore steelhead trout, Chinook salmon, and bull trout, all of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Salmon and steelhead are keystone species that support entire ecosystems, and their loss has cascading effects on ocean biodiversity and the national economy. Chinook salmon are important to tribal and non-tribal fishers alike and a critical food source of endangered Southern Resident orcas.
  • “This is a monumental decision that will allow fish unimpeded access to pristine habitat above the dam for the first time in more than 100 years,” said Earthjustice senior attorney Elizabeth Forsyth. “The Endangered Species Act ensures that companies like Electron cannot blatantly harm or kill threatened and endangered species.”

We’re fighting to protect salmon on multiple fronts

  • Earthjustice is also representing fishing groups in a lawsuit against U.S. tire manufacturers over the use of 6PPD in rubber tires. This chemical interacts with ground-level ozone to create a toxin called 6PPD-q that has devastating impacts on coho salmon and steelhead trout.
  • Earthjustice is also representing fishing and water groups in Oregon on removal of several salmon-harming dams there. For three decades, Earthjustice has represented fishing, environmental, and renewable energy groups in court battles to protect fish in Pacific Northwest rivers.
  • Fighting biodiversity loss: Nearly 40% of all species may face extinction by the end of this century. Defending keystone species like salmon and trout is part of our legal strategy for tackling this crisis.
The Puyallup River, with Mount Rainier in the background.
The Puyallup River, with Mount Tahoma (Rainier) in the background. (David Seibold / CC BY-NC 2.0)