Long Journey to Deeper Columbia River Endsby Aaron Corvin
The Columbian, October 21, 2010
Large crowd at Vancouver port touts project's benefits
After 20 years of talking and planning and dredging, the $190 million project to deepen the Columbia River to boost commerce is over.
On Thursday, leaders in Washington and Oregon politics and business who pushed the project forward put an exclamation on that fact by celebrating it at a Port of Vancouver event that drew more than 200 people.
For the port, the channel-deepening project already has helped attract an export operation that could generate at least 60 jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for other port ventures.
The project, which deepened the navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet, was one of the keys to obtaining a preliminary agreement with Australian mining giant BHP Billiton to ship fertilizers for crops from the port's Terminal 5, according to Larry Paulson, executive director of the Port of Vancouver. "You have the ability to load more on bigger ships," Paulson said when the port announced the deal with BHP two months ago.
While the port has already benefitted, it's unclear how broad an impact the channel-deepening project will have in a down economy. But that didn't hamper the enthusiasm of Paulson and other government, business, labor and agricultural leaders in Washington and Oregon who gathered to tout completion of the controversial project, which triggered public acrimony and touched off lawsuits from environmentalists.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski urged some 275 attendees, assembled inside a massive warehouse with a giant American flag strung from the rafters, to take the long-term view of the economic benefits of the channel-deepening project. "When the economy does fully recover, we are going to be ready to say we're open for business both at the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver," Kulongoski said. "This river serves all regions of our states."
Many of the speakers on Thursday said the support of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who is locked in a tight race with Republican challenger Dino Rossi, was crucial to making the channel-deepening project happen. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said Murray has given more than seven years of support for the project, including securing $140 million in federal funding for it.
Backers of the river deepening, which began construction in 2005, touted its economic impacts and long-term objectives: More than 1,000 Pacific Northwest businesses and farmers ship an estimated $17 billion of cargo through the Columbia River annually. And backers said more than 40,000 jobs in the region depend directly on commerce along the river, while tens of thousands more jobs have been created indirectly from shipping operations along the river.
Patrick Bryan, vice president of the Kalama Export Company, said a deeper Columbia River enables his company to add up to 10 percent more grain cargo per vessel. "We are ready to use it today," he said.
Seven years ago, Sam Ruda, marine director for the Port of Portland, had a list of shipping companies who shunned the region because it couldn't handle big ships. They said, "'Don't call us until the channel is deepened,'" he said. Now, Ruda said, it's time to start calling them again.
Randy Uhrich, past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said grain buyers are using "larger and larger ships" and that his industry ships "85 percent to 90 percent of our wheat to foreign markets." A deeper navigation channel will increase his industry's competitiveness in world markets, he said.
Deepening the shipping channel from 40 feet to 43 feet along the 103 miles between Portland-Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean involved complicated engineering and technical work, dredging crews and underwater explosives. Paul Amos, president of the Columbia River Pilots, said the extra three feet of depth is a big boost to navigation safety. Once a ship is loaded, Amos added, the "bulk of the vessel is below the water line."
In summing up his remarks, Oregon Congressman David Wu said: "We finally got that thorny warrior rock reduced to rubble."
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