Washington and Oregon Will Celebrate
by Yvonne Smith
Ports Already Reaping Benefits of Project
Public officials from the states of Washington and Oregon will join folks from Columbia River ports on Thursday to celebrate a monumental achievement - the completion of a 20-year, $200 million effort to deepen the river's navigation channel from 40 to 43 feet. Technically, the project is not totally complete. There still is a small section of the river near Longview, where a contractor continues to remove rocks and debris deposited 30 years ago by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. That debris has accumulated at the junction of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers and is being removed methodically with a clamshell dredge.
Yet even that tiny section, which represents only a fraction the 103-mile long project, is expected to be completed by the end of the year, and is likely to be finished by mid-November, says project manager Laura Hicks with the Portland district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As a result, officials have taken advantage of the congressional recess in Washington D.C. to hold a celebration that promises to attract an A-List of elected officials and invited guests.
Those who speak at the celebration will have plenty to brag about. On the green scale, the project is a winner. Some 13 million cubic yards of dredge material has been removed from the river since 2005 and deposited either on land or at sea without harming a single endangered species, Hicks said. On the safety scale, the project also gets top marks. Thanks to the dredging, the Columbia River will maintain depths of at least 43 feet along a 600-foot wide channel, even during dry summer months - giving ships an additional three feet of bottom clearance year-round. Five extra feet of "over-dredging" will keep the depths at a minimum of 43 feet even if spring silting occurs, Hicks says.
On the economics scale, the project is already producing impressive results. Even before the dredging has been completed, Columbia River ports are enjoying a boost in business and crediting the deepening project for much of that success.
This past summer, Westwood Shipping Lines began calling at the Port of Portland, giving the port a direct link to Japan that was lost when "K" Line pulled its weekly service from Portland in 2009. Sam Ruda, director of marine and industrial development for the port, said the deeper channel will allow Westwood to haul more cargo in ships that carry a combination of containers and breakbulk goods. Because agricultural exports leaving Portland tend to be heavy, extra deadweight volume will be a welcome addition.
Across the river at the Port of Vancouver USA, officials credit the channel deepening for their ability to attract mining giant BHP Billiton to their port. Billiton plans to begin construction in 2012 on a $200 million facility to export potash from a mine in Saskatchewan. The channel deepening will allow Billiton to load from 6,000 to 10,000 more tons of cargo per vessel, says Curtis Shuck, Vancouver's economic development and facilities director. By 2015, the company will open the facility that will eventually export as much as eight million tons of potash per year.
Potash is a potassium-rich mineral, used mostly in fertilizer, but also as an element in the manufacture of glass, ceramics, dyes, drugs, soaps, water softeners, explosives and other industrial products.
The channel deepening also will allow Vancouver's United Grain Corporation terminal to load an additional 6,000 to 10,000 tons of wheat per ship and make the terminal more competitive with Gulf Coast ports, Shuck said.
Downriver at the Port of Longview, Executive Director Ken O'Hollaren said the channel deepening "absolutely" factored into the decision of EGT Development to construct a new grain export terminal at his port.
"It is unlikely that this would have happened if not for the channel project," he said of the EGT's $200 million investment in the first export grain terminal to be built in the United States in more than two decades. That facility is expected to handle eight million metric tons of grain annually and create more than 50 full-time and 35 vessel-related jobs when it opens in mid-2011.
Columbia River ports already have created jobs through capital projects they have completed in anticipation of new business.
The Port of Portland expanded its Terminal 5 potash facility two years ago to handle volume increases and bigger ships. During the past summer, berths at the Terminal 5 potash and grain facilities also were deepened to 43 feet to match river depths. Berths at Portland's Terminal 6 container facility were deepened in 2008, and the port has added two container cranes and modified a third to accommodate larger ships.
The Port of Vancouver USA has invested more than $200 million in infrastructure, marine terminals, warehouse facilities and berth deepening in anticipation of the deeper river depths, Shuck said. In addition, more than $100 million will be spent on a looped rail track that can accommodate trains as long as 7,000 feet. Shuck says the track will be expanded to 8,500 feet to handle mile-and-a-half long trains planned by BHP Billiton.
The Port of Longview's future grain terminal already has 43-foot water depths, and the port is currently performing the engineering work to deepen other berths at the port, O'Hollaren said.
Upriver from Longview, the Port of Kalama has added shipping bins at its Cenex/United Harvest grain terminal and is planning expansions at the Kalama Export Co. grain terminal, as well.
Although the deepening of the Columbia River channel was managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, six ports along the river joined as sponsors of the project back in 1989. Those ports, located on both the Oregon and Washington river banks, have worked collaboratively to get congressional support and funding for the project over the years, Ruda said. The states of Oregon and Washington have each contributed $27.7 million toward the project, with the remainder coming from a long series of federal appropriations.
The project has been supported not only by congressional representatives from Washington and Oregon, but also by their counterparts in Idaho, Montana ,the Dakotas and other states where farmers depend on the Columbia River to get their products to overseas markets. Today, the Columbia River ports are moving 47 percent of the nation's wheat exports and a sizable chunk of other grains, wine, fruit, peas and lentils, along with wood and paper products.
As a result, the Columbia River channel project is considered "an infrastructure project of national significance." Next week, the significance of the project will be celebrated by hundreds, and the Columbia River will receive some well-deserved recognition as a major player in the nation's economic strength.
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