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Channel Deepening Hearings Draw Large Crowds

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 10, 2003

Opponents of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Columbia River Ports' $156.2 million plan to deepen about 100 miles of Columbia River navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet were out in force at Astoria and Portland hearings this week -- their last chance to voice opinions on the controversial project.

Yet, the reasons they oppose the deepening project were vastly different between the Portland location and those in Astoria at the other end of the project.

In Portland, the majority opposing the project focused on the Corps' plan to fill with dredged spoils the Martin Island lagoon, a popular boating destination. In Astoria, opponents said the project would ruin commercial crab and salmon fishing, primary contributors to the area's livelihood, and many expressed a deep distrust of the Corps.

Although there are upriver benefits for this project, there are also economic detriments that affect people who live in the lower river estuary, according to Oliver Waldman, executive director of Salmon For All, a four-decade old organization of fishermen and businessmen in Astoria. He specifically pointed out two habitat restoration projects that fill Miller-Pillar and the Lois Island embayment that would directly take away local jobs by filling areas where commercial fishermen use gillnet and tangle nets to catch salmon.

"The Corps has a terrible history," Waldman said. "It has put out several versions of its plan and the biology keeps changing. They make up words like 'environmental mitigation" and they have a credibility problem you may not have addressed."

Todd Jones, the project manager of the terminal hatchery at Tongue Point near Astoria, which is adjacent to Lois Island, and is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, said the 192 fishermen that support their families in the fishery would likely be reduced to a dozen fishermen after Lois Island is filled. In addition, 17 families fish the area near Miller Pillar, slated to become shallow water habitat if the Corps plan is approved.

Nearly half of the people who spoke at the two hearings either fully favored the project or wanted to see only slight modifications.

Warren Banks, executive director of the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association in Astoria said the Columbia River is a key part of the trade and transportation system that makes Washington the most trade-dependent state in the nation and ranks Oregon sixth on that list. He added that because much of the river is already more than 43 feet deep, the project will only affect 54 percent of the channel and only 3.5 percent of the total river and warned that the environment may suffer if the ports cannot attract modern shipping.

"If the project doesn't move forward, you will see further environmental impacts from aging ships that don't meet environmental standards elsewhere," he said, referring to predictions that only old, outdated ships will visit the river if the channel isn't deepened.

Also lining up in favor of deepening the channel were representatives of the sponsoring lower Columbia River ports, Oregon's Economic and Community Development Department, tow and tug boat operators and several labor unions touting the potential of the project to maintain vital trade with other regions of the world, while providing a market for Northwest grains and jobs for labor.

Bruce Holte of the Longshoreman's Union in Portland, which supports the channel deepening proposal, said the Columbia River Ports directly support 1,351 union jobs and the businesses directly and indirectly involved in the port provide $208 million in state and local taxes and 100,000 jobs overall in both rural and urban areas of Oregon. "We stand in stark contrast to the extreme environmental organizations that oppose the project," Holte said.

Michael Burton, assistant director of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department said the Corps underestimated the economic benefits of the project because it can only count national benefits and discounts local benefits.

Larry Johnson, a director of Foss Maritime, reminded the audience in Portland that previous channel deepening projects, beginning at 25 feet in the early part of the 20th Century, have paid for themselves many times over in taxes and jobs.

On the other hand, Liz Caleson, a director of the East Multnomah Water & Soil Conservation District, believes the project is "a repetition of the same mistakes we've made in the past. Is this what we want to stake our economy on? We have well-educated people and we need more complex and interesting jobs."

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Land Conservation & Development, along with Washington Department of Ecology, held the two joint hearings this week to get public input on the Corps' application for water quality certification for the project and to get a ruling from DCLD and Ecology on the plan's consistency with state, county and local Coastal Zone Management Act rules.

Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act requires that any federal project, or project that requires federal approval, receive a water quality certification from states, which are responsible for enforcing the CWA, said Russell Harding of DEQ. Ecology is also responsible for issuing the certification.

"DLCD oversees land use planning in Oregon and it is also lesser known for overseeing the coastal zone management within the state," said Christine Valentine of DLCD. The agency will evaluate the area of the river roughly from the coast upstream to Puget Island to determine its compliance with CZMA, she said.

If any one of the agencies denies the Corps certification for the project, then the entire project would be stalled, according to Harding. The state agencies will likely rule on water quality certification and CZMA consistency some time in the next three months. Already one person in Astoria asked about the process for appealing the states' decisions.

The Corps received favorable biological opinions from NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2002, but has yet to get the final water quality certifications and the assurance that the dredging plan conforms with CZMA rules. It applied to Oregon for those permits in September and to Washington Nov. 22. The certification is the final hurdle the Corps needs before sending its plan to Congress for a budget appropriation. If approvals move smoothly and the project is funded, dredging could begin as early as 2004.

This is the second time around for the Corps, which has been working with the ports since the late 1980s to deepen the channel. It received approvals from NOAA Fisheries and the USFWS in 1999. However, NOAA Fisheries rescinded its ruling in August 2000, worried the project could have detrimental effects on salmon and steelhead species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the agency was concerned how contaminants from the dredging operation would affect endangered species, and it was concerned about a lawsuit brought against NOAA Fisheries by Northwest Environmental Advocates. About the same time, the states denied the project both water quality permits and CZMA approval.

Since that time, the Corps worked through a prolonged and public scientific review and made a number of revisions to the deepening plan. This year it completed a supplemental EIS and revised its economic report, dropping the project's cost by more than $30 million from the original price tag of $188 million. That includes both dredging operations and the cost of the environmental restoration projects. The benefits of deepening the channel, specifically those benefits of an increased number of deeper draft ships using the river and greater shipping efficiencies, would bring in $18.3 million per year over 50 years to the national economy, according to the report. That's down from the previous findings of $34.4 million in annual benefits.

The new economic study found that for every dollar spent dredging the channel, the region and nation will reap $1.46 in economic benefits. That figure is revised downwards from the 1999 report which found that the project would result in $2 in benefits for every $1 spent.

Still, opponents of the project said the revisions do not make the grade and so the state agencies should deny certification a second time. "What has changed since the deepening project was denied?" asked Matt Van Ness, Columbia River Estuary Study Task Force executive director. "Well, since the Final EIS was denied an Endangered Species Act reconsultation effort was conducted by project sponsors, the Corps, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There remains a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the project and as a result of the reconsultation effort, the project is now worse." He said the project will continue to degrade the "estuarine and near-shore ocean environment natural resources and aquatic species" and is not in compliance with local and coastal zone regulations and will result in increased water quality impacts. For one thing, Van Ness said, a controversial plan to dispose of dredged materials over an ocean site thick with crabs has not been taken off the table, even though the Corps did not include it in its water quality application to the states. He said, and the Corps has confirmed before, that ocean disposal eventually will be needed, in about ten years. In fact, the Corps began a public process this week, which includes ocean disposal for its maintenance dredging operations that it performs every year to keep the navigation channel clear.

"Ocean disposal has not been eliminated and without a Final NEPA document from the Corps our review and the State applications remain a moving target in this regard," Van Ness said.

Further, he said, the Corps' plan to dump spoils in estuary flow lanes greater than 65 feet in depth is a violation of state and local laws. Dumping at such deepwater estuary sites has already occurred, and dumping in flow lanes downstream of river mile 5 will simply be dredged out again during maintenance dredging and dropped in the ocean, some of it over existing crab beds, he said.

Dumping over crab beds and building up dangerous sandy shoals inside Columbia River jetties is also a concern of Dale Beasely of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman's Association. He said that other regions mitigate for damage to crabs and it was time the Corps did the same thing on the Columbia River. But he is also concerned for the safety of anyone who passes the Columbia River Bar near the Corps' dump site E, an area that has claimed the lives of several fishermen over the past couple of years.

Christy McDonough, coastal planner for the task force, said the current disposal plan "merely postpones the use of the ocean for 10 years and shifts the impacts of construction from crabbers to salmon fishers and permanently alters the estuary."

Like Waldman, Van Ness also blasted the Corps' plans to dump spoils at Miller Pillar and Lois Islands, which he said will result in even more water quality impacts and inconsistencies with CZMA regulations than did the Corps' previous proposal. He pointed out that at Lois Island, where spoils will be dumped and then transferred again to make shallow water habitat, the disposed material will impact the Estuary Turbidity Maximum (ETM) and that impact will "extend to higher trophic levels, including fishes (i.e. juvenile salmon) and birds."

In a more sweeping statement, McDonough said the ecosystem restoration projects "do not negate impacts from the actual deepening and, with the exception of long term Tenasillahe proposal, provide little if any positive benefits to the estuary, and in some cases actually result in ESA species take."

She added that the project continues to be inconsistent with CZMA regulations, just as it was in 1999. Among those inconsistencies are that it provides no mitigation, no timing windows (the Corps has proposed and NOAA Fisheries has accepted a two year continuous work period regardless of fish activities during the year), zoning conflicts, no consultation on local disposal sites and a lack of coordination and project planning with interest groups such as fishermen.

The task force, along with several others who provided comments in Astoria, supported the use of more beneficial uses of dredged spoils, such as using dredged sand to supplement southern Washington beaches where beach erosion has become a problem. The Corps completed an experiment last year when it pumped dredged materials directly onto Benson Beach to enrich the eroded beach. However, the Corps has not proposed such disposal options in its current plan.

McDonough concluded that the channel deepening project as proposed by the Corps is substantially flawed.

"We must move beyond channel deepening and move forward with creative solutions such as increasing beneficial uses of Columbia sediments and expanding meaningful large scale community based restoration of the estuary," she said.

The state agencies will take written comments until 5 p.m. January 15. Directions on how to send comments by mail or e-mail are available at agency web sites.

Related Sites: Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality:
Oregon Dept. of Land Conservation and Development:
Washington Dept. of Ecology:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:
Copies of the applications:

Mike O'Bryant
Channel Deepening Hearings Draw Large Crowds
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 10, 2003

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