Court: Project does not interfere with religious freedom


In a recent decision (see the attachment below) issued by the US Court of Appeals, a judge decided that Snoqualmine Falls hydroelectric project does not interfere with a local tribe's religious freedom.The Snoqualmie India Tribe considers Snoqualmine Falls that lies within the project boundary to be a sacred site that played a role in the creation of the tribe. It also believes that the mist created by the Falls connects the earth with the heaven. The 268-foot waterfall, located  about 30 miles east of Seattle, has also been considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The tribe had claimed that the operation of project as allowed in the license issued by FERC results in lower flow over the falls than would have occurred naturally. Naturally, the flows over Snoqualmie Falls would equal or exceed 1,000 cfs 80 percent of the time whereas under the license conditions, the minimum flows only exceed 200 cfs in one month, that too at only 450 cfs. Commissioner Nora Mead Brownwell, had dissented the issuance of a license in 2004 based on the flows allowed in the license.The tribe also argued that the license to Puget Sound Energy, Inc. to operate the project violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) because (a) access to the Falls would be restricted, (b) the project would eliminate the mist which is part of the religious experience, and (c) the project would alter the natural sacred cycle of water flow. The tribe had requested the court for a stay order on issuance on license.However, the Court declared that FERC's decision to issue license did not interfere with the tribe's rights to practice religion and that FERC's decision was supported by substantial evidence. The Court decision states

...we hold that the FERC decision was supported by substantial evidence and demonstrates that the Commission properly balanced the beneficial public purposes specified in §10 of the Federal Power Act. The water flow requirements adopted by FERC in the First Rehearing Order were carefully considered during the thirteen-year relicensing proceeding and were included in the option recommended in the final EIS.

Furthermore the court decision states

... it was not arbitrary or capricious for FERC to conclude that increasing the minimum flow during May and June to 1,000 cfs would augment the Tribe's religious experience and result in a better balance of interests.

The Snoqualmie hydroelectric project is located on the Snoqualmie river in King county, WA and has the capacity of 44.4-megawatt (MW).