Buffett spurns Klamath River tribes and fishermen on dams

The Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes and fishermen capped off their historic cross-country pilgrimage to Omaha, Neb., on May 5 with a protest outside the shareholders meeting of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway Corp.

They demanded the removal of four Klamath Dams owned by Berkshire subsidiary PacifiCorp that they contend are largely responsible for the decades-long decline of salmon, steelhead and other species on the Klamath River.

Although Buffett never met with the tribes as they had requested, two members of the broad-based coalition were able to ask questions directly to Buffett and his partner Charles Munger before a crowd of 27,000 shareholders. They made the shareholders aware, many for the first time, of the depth and gravity of problems posed to the Klamath’s fisheries and people by the salmon-killing dams.

The pilgrimage to the stockholders meeting, the “Woodstock of Capitalism,” included press conferences along the way in San Francisco, Sacramento and Salt Lake City, a salmon bake in Omaha on May 3, a traditional brush dance on May 4 and then the protest on May 5.

In a solidarity action with dam removal advocates gathered in Omaha, members of the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath tribes rallied with other Klamath River residents and PacifiCorp ratepayers at the company’s headquarters in Portland on May 4.

Ronnie Pellegrini, wife of a commercial salmon fisherman, traveled to Omaha with her two teenage daughters to join in the protest and other events. Her husband, Paul, was salmon-trolling off the California coast to take to advantage of a limited salmon season that started May 1.

“They’re barely hanging onto their livelihoods because of the Klamath River crisis,” said Pellegrini, in describing the plight of salmon fishing families devastated by fishing closures.

Pellegrini told Buffett that her family lost 95 percent of its income last year because her husband is a salmon fisherman. Salmon fishing was severely restricted along 700 miles of California and Oregon coastline in 2006 due to low runs of Klamath salmon.

The PacifiCorp dams — and a change in Klamath River water policy in 2001 by the Bush administration that resulted in the adult and juvenile fish kills of 2002 — are the key factors in the dramatic decline of salmon fisheries.

Wendy George, council member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, then told Buffett, “My people are river people. Our entire culture, religion and subsistence are based on the river.”

George appealed to Buffett to meet with the tribes in order to find a solution to the problem.

“In response, the normally polished Buffett fumbled through papers to read a written response,” observed Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. “Instead of taking responsibility for his company’s actions, Buffett stated that regulators such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would decide the issue.”

Buffett also declined to acknowledge that the tribes are seeking a negotiated settlement with the company as is common in dam re-licensing proceedings.

“I am overwhelmed with disappointment,” emphasized Leaf Hillman of the Karuk Tribe. “Although Mr. Buffett stressed over and over to young investors the importance of researching your investments, he clearly has a poor understanding of Klamath issues.”

Buffett also remarked that “27 parties are involved in dam negotiations and there are 27 opinions.”

However, Hillman said that Buffett’s statement is not based on the facts.

“There are actually 28 parties, but there are only two opinions about dam removal — PacifiCorp’s and everyone else’s,” he said. “Everyone else includes tribes, conservation groups, counties, farmers and governments. We have a real chance to end the Klamath crisis in a way that saves Berkshire money, yet PacifiCorp refuses to work with us in good faith.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the California Energy Commission recently reported that dam removal is cheaper than re-licensing, even if the energy lost is replaced by other “carbon neutral” energy sources.

The California tribes, fishermen and conservationists were joined by.

This was not the first time that the tribes, fishermen and conservationists, including a large contingent from Friends of the River, had gone out of state to plead the case for Klamath dam removal. The groups traveled all of the way to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2004 and 2005 to convince Scottish Power, then the owner of PacifiCorp, to remove its four dams. The tribes and their allies received many favorable responses from the shareholders there, since the Scottish, coming from a traditional salmon-centered culture, have a lot of affinity with them.

On the other hand, the response of the shareholders to the tribes’ request at the Omaha meeting was mixed. Although some shareholders were supportive, others strongly opposed the tribes’ presence.

“Some of the rich shareholders from Berkshire Hathaway told us to go to hell,” said Chook Chook Hillman, who with three other “world renewal” priests was on a nine-day fast that ended the night before the shareholders meeting. “A few also hurled racial slurs at us.”

“Buffett said that he doesn’t have any pull regarding removing the dams and wouldn’t answer the questions that Pellegrini and George asked him,” Hill said. “However, we all know that Buffett, the second richest guy in the world, has all of the pull that he wants to exert in getting PacifiCorp to remove its dams.”

The road trip was a huge success in bringing the issue of dam removal before millions of the people, since the issue was covered by The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Forbes magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and scores of other publications, numerous television and radio stations, many news outlets on the Internet.

The tribes and allies added to the media drama by transporting two ceremonial canoes all of the way to Omaha and back. “The media covered it from the beginning to the end, with nearly 200 articles from Austria to Australia,” according to Friends of the River.

The tribes’ goal was to get on Buffett’s radar screen — and Tucker believes that they did a good job of bringing their message before 27,000 investors.

“Buffet is always advising people on doing their homework in regards to financial investment,” Tucker said. “Well, he didn’t do his homework on the issue of PacifiCorp’s dams, as shown by his poor responses to our questions. We feel that he missed our point and doesn’t understand his role in removing the dams.”

Robert Lenzner, in an opinion column in Forbes magazine on May 5, agreed with the tribes and fishermen in their criticism of Buffett’s handling of the questions by dam removal advocates at the meeting.

“The salmon runs are blocked by six dams owned by PacifiCorp, a utility controlled by Berkshire Hathaway,” stated Lenzner. “That’s the core of the problem and the reason Buffett was asked to intervene. Both times he declined, explaining that the final decision was up to the local utility regulators.”

“But we all know the immense influence Buffett has; he personally saved Salomon Bros. from liquidation. It would have been more heroic to agree to meet with the people affected and to put his weight behind a fair and proper solution,” he concluded.

Tucker said the tribes and their allies would probably appeal to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who regards Buffett as a trusted economic adviser, to put pressure on Warren Buffett to support dam removal on the Klamath.

Meanwhile, Klamath River tribal leaders, commercial fishermen and recreational business owners filed suit on May 2 against PacifiCorp, contending that two of its dams are the cause of massive blooms of toxic algae that are decimating the salmon fishery and causing an extreme potential health hazard to humans. The group retained nationally known trial lawyers to file the suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

“These dams are having a devastating impact on the economies and cultures of Native Americans and others who depend on the Klamath River,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of Kennedy & Madonna of Hurley, N.Y., co-counsel in the case. Kennedy has successfully represented Riverkeeper of New York in fighting pollution in the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.

One of the suit’s main claims is that the “ceremonies and subsistence fishing for the Yurok and Karuk tribes are under siege because of the deadly toxins created by PacifiCorp’s dams,” said Joseph W. Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy of Burlingame, Calif., Kennedy’s co-counsel.

The lawsuit contends the reservoirs behind the Iron Gate and Copco dams in Northern California near the Oregon border are a “toxic nuisance” and that Portland-based PacifiCorp should be enjoined from operating them in a way that causes the annual toxic blooms because of improper intake and release of water.

Regina Chichizola, the Klamath Riverkeeper, emphasized that the dams are creating and releasing toxic algae in concentrations 4,000 times what is safe for contact, according to the World Health Organization. “For the local tribes and many business owners, these dams are robbing river and coastal communities of their livelihoods and causing potential health problems for the local population,” she said.

Dave Kvamme, a PacifCorp spokesman, said it is the company’s policy to not comment on pending litigation.

He did note that the company is currently participating in two parallel processes — the hydropower re-licensing and a voluntary settlement process. “We would prefer to find a solution that all of the parties agree to, but if we can’t reach a settlement, we will pursue the federal re-licensing process over the next few years.”

The battle to bring down the Klamath dams is unique among today’s environmental battles in that the federal government, the states of California and Oregon, and local governments are all on the same page as Indian tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and environmentalists in regards to dam removal.

“These dams are poor power producers, offer no flood control, and do not provide water for irrigators. The only thing they do well is destroy the livelihoods of Indians and fishermen,” summed up Richard Myers of the Yurok Tribal Council.