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Originally published June 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 28, 2007 at 4:26 PM

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Dems: Investigate Cheney for role in salmon die-off

West Coast Democrats called for a hearing Wednesday into the role Vice President Dick Cheney may have played in the 2002 die-off of about...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — West Coast Democrats called for a hearing Wednesday into the role Vice President Dick Cheney may have played in the 2002 die-off of about 70,000 salmon near the California-Oregon border.

An article in The Washington Post on Wednesday said Cheney played a crucial role in developing a 10-year water plan for the Klamath River that courts later called arbitrary and in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Democrats charged that Cheney's action resulted in the largest adult salmon kill in the history of the West.

"The ramifications of that salmon kill are still being felt today as returns to the Klamath River are so low that commercial, sport and tribal fishing seasons have been curtailed for the past three years," Democrats said in a letter calling for the hearing.

Commercial fishing in California and Oregon was cut by more than 90 percent last year — the largest commercial-fishing closure in the history of the country — resulting in more than $60 million in damage to coastal economies, the letter said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., whose district includes the area where the fish died, said Democrats want to have a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.

"We know that science was manipulated and the law was violated," Thompson said. "Did in fact the vice president of the United States put pressure on midlevel bureaucrats to alter the science and circumvent the law in order to gain political votes for his re-election or the election of other people in Oregon?"

Thompson's office drafted the letter, which was signed by 36 House Democrats in California and Oregon, including all four Democratic House members in Oregon and all Democrats but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in California. Thompson said he did not ask Pelosi to sign the letter.

Megan McGinn, a spokeswoman for the vice president's office, said late Wednesday she had not seen the letter and could not comment.

The salmon die-off and water usage in the drought-plagued Klamath Basin have long been a source of political controversy. In 2004, the Interior Department's inspector general found no basis for a claim by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that White House political advisers interfered in developing water policy in the Klamath.

The inspector general said President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was not involved in a 2002 decision to divert water from the Klamath River in Oregon to irrigate farms. While Rove mentioned the Klamath in passing during a briefing with senior Interior officials, "we found nothing to tie Karl Rove's comments ... to the Klamath decision-making process," Inspector General Earl Devaney said.

Three months after Rove's meeting in early 2002, administration officials increased the water supply to more than 200,000 acres of farmland in California and Oregon — a decision bitterly opposed by environmentalists and commercial fishermen.

In September 2002, tens of thousands of chinook salmon died in the Klamath River in Northern California. The California Department of Fish and Game laid much of the blame on low water flows controlled by the federal government, saying it created conditions that allowed a fatal gill-rot disease to spread through the fish.

A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said low river flows played a role but said other factors, including a large return of fish, also contributed to the fish kill, the worst in decades.

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