Lawsuit from last year’s Oroville Dam debacle seeks up to $51 billion in penalties

Central California’s Oroville Dam, which encountered catastrophic failure last year that led to the erosion of 1.7 million cubic yards of material, is now the subject of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. As of this time’s writing, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey has filed a suit against the Department of Water Resources (DWR) in California wherein he seeks up to $51 billion in civil penalties.

The lawsuit, which has a minimum penalty amount of $34 billion, is based on an early estimate of the amount of concrete, dirt, and rock that got washed into the Feather River right after the main and emergency spillways of the damn failed to stop all the erosion. It is said that a more recent estimate proposes significantly higher amounts of the eroded material into the river, and if the penalties are based on this, then the costs would be even higher.

According to the Butte County DA, he filed the civil claim of environmental damages against the DWR mainly because they violated a fish and game code. “The deleterious nature of the overwhelming material was spot-lighted and proved by the evacuation of the feather river fish hatchery,” he explained in a statement. “It was too dangerous for the Salmon and Steelhead there.”

He also clarified that whether or not the DWR had the best intentions was completely irrelevant. “There’s no need to prove that they willfully or negligently intended to pass through deleterious material,” Ramsey said. “Basically, you dump, you’re liable.” (Related: Oroville dam emergency demonstrates how incompetent bureaucrats are marching California into catastrophic collapse at every level.)

The lawsuit was said to be based on a law that dates back to 1875, which was instituted in order to protect fish and other wildlife by prohibiting the dumping of harmful materials into the waterways of the state. Ever since that law was put in place, it has been amended numerous times. As to today, it provides for penalties of up to $10 per pound for dumping what can be described as “any substance or material deleterious to fish, plant life, mammals, or bird life.”

According to the Butte County lawsuit, the weight of the Oroville spillway sludge is estimated to be between 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per cubic yard. By taking that number and multiplying it by 1.7 million – the number of cubic yards – you’ll get the overall weight estimate of 3.4 billion to 5.1 billion pounds. That’s how the penalties were determined in the suit: The state law’s maximum penalty of $10 per pound brings the fine up to between $34 billion and $51 billion.

Tom Lando, the Interim Director for the Feather River Recreation and Park District, remarked about the extent of the destruction brought forth by the failure of the spillways. “I saw the water almost up to Highway 70 – it is flood-plane, but it’s still amazing to see that water up there,” he said. “And I saw all that damage; it’s almost indescribable.”

Lando further added that they took away tons of trash that came down from the flood, the debris, and destroyed structures in the area. Because of the amount of devastation, the district could really use any resources that they can get, Lando stated.

Although backed with sound logic, the outrageously high penalties will likely not come to pass, according to a report. It’s more likely that the courts would impose a lesser amount for the fine as a sort of reasonable compromise. No matter what happens, restitution is sorely needed. So it would be best if all those involved came to an agreement as soon as possible.

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