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Originally published Thursday, December 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Lawsuit seeks to block energy rules

Several conservation groups have sued to block new federal rules governing hydroelectric-dam licensing, arguing that they give utilities...

The Associated Press

YAKIMA — Several conservation groups have sued to block new federal rules governing hydroelectric-dam licensing, arguing that they give utilities unfair control over the nation's rivers as they seek to relicense their dams.

The lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Seattle accuses the government of publishing the new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules without allowing for public comment. Because the rules apply retroactively, they also illegally allow challenges to established measures that protect rivers from dams, the lawsuit contends.

The new rules for dam relicensing have broad reach nationally. More than 200 dam projects in 36 states, generating enough power to light more than 22.5 million homes, are due to apply for new 50-year operating licenses by 2020.

"If you operate a big hydro dam, you get special treatment and special rights under these rules. But if you live, work or play on these rivers, you don't even get a say. We want to level the playing field," said Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice.

Right to challenge

According to the new rules, utilities now will be able to challenge requirements written into dam licenses by federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Such conditions can set river flows to boost recreation or even force utilities to build fish ladders to bolster endangered salmon and steelhead runs.

In addition, the new rules will allow utilities and other stakeholders to propose alternatives to such conditions.

The rules were part of the 2005 energy bill President Bush signed Aug. 8. They will apply to all nonfederally operated dams seeking a new license.

Utilities have said the changes were necessary so utilities can continue to satisfy America's growing appetite for energy, which is expected to grow by 1.9 percent annually for the next two decades.

Industry leaders hope the new regulations will streamline relicensing, which sometimes takes a decade, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to customers.

"These are excellent rules, because they preserve important environmental standards. They ensure all stakeholders take part in the process and also reform the long-broken regulatory process," said Steven Gotfried, spokesman for the National Hydropower Association.

Critics' charges

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Critics have argued the new rules give power companies more rights than states, Indian tribes and others with a stake in dam relicensing.

The federal government should give citizens an opportunity to be heard before implementing the rules, Hasselman said.

"The local communities, conservation groups and Indian tribes have worked for years in good faith to build consensus around the management of these dams and the rivers they impact. That consensus is in jeopardy," Hasselman said. "The rules give an unfair advantage to dam operators and cut citizens and communities out of the process of managing these public resources."

Parties to the lawsuit include Earthjustice, American Rivers, Friends of the River, Idaho Rivers United, American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Fund Inc.

Associated Press writer John Miller in Boise contributed to this report.

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