Court rejects Tribe's appeal of Falls dam license

A recent court decision against a Snoqualmie Tribe appeal of Puget Sound Energy
A recent court decision against a Snoqualmie Tribe appeal of Puget Sound Energy's license to run the Snoqualmie Falls hydropower plant clears part of the way for planned changes and modernization at the Falls facility.
— image credit: Jenny Manning / Snoqualmie Valley Record

A federal court has rejected the Snoqualmie Tribe's appeal of the Puget Sound Energy newest license to run the Snoqualmie Falls hydropower plant.

Issuing the decision on Tuesday, Oct. 7, in San Francisco, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2004 ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the plant's license balanced religious concerns by the Tribe with other interests at the Falls.

The Tribe had expressed concern that the diversion of water to the power plants significantly changed the Falls.

Snoqualmie Falls is a sacred site to the Snoqualmie Tribe, and takes its name from the Snoqualmie people. The Tribe's preference is that the dam and power plant be removed from the falls.

Snoqualmie Tribe Administrator Matt Mattson said the Tribe will take time to absorb the court's decision and consider a response.

Mattson said the court's decision was based on a newer legal standard that gives the federal agencies like FERC more latitude in decision-making regarding the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

"It seems our fate is tied to this new standard," he said.

The court decision clears the way for planned changes by PSE at the Falls.

"Certainly, we are pleased that the decision has now been rendered," said PSE Spokesman Roger Thompson. "It appears to us as though the court's ruling reflects a proper balance."

Thompson said the energy company has standards it must follow to respect and acknowledge the Tribe's cultural and religious interest in the Falls.

"Our belief is that the license will allow us to continue providing a clean, renewable source of energy to our customers," while providing due respect to the tribe, he said.

PSE awaits a new amendment to the license that will allow it to proceed with planned renovations at the Falls site. Plans being discussed include removing some of the filled south bank of the river, and removing old, crumbling buildings and a footbridge crossing the river. The plan would place much of the power plant infrastructure underground, lower the level of the dam atop the crest of the falls, and make improvements at the Falls park.

"We think we've arrived at a project plan that would provide a more aethetically desirable, natural look," Thompson said.

While the design and work on the new Falls site will take several years, Thompso said that the amended license could be in PSE's hands "any time."

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