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Groups Attack Dredging Plan for Columbia

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, February 15, 2000

Conservationists file a lawsuit contending that the project would harm endangered salmon

Dredging a 100-mile stretch of the Columbia River -- a massive $196 million undertaking to ensure passage of larger ships between the Pacific Ocean and Vancouver, Wash. -- should be blocked because it would harm endangered salmon, a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday charges.

The lawsuit, brought by five conservation groups, is likely to have clout because it harnesses powerful provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

The act was invoked as recently as last year by the National Marine Fisheries Service in protecting Columbia River fish, of which there are now 12 populations of salmon and steelhead trout with officially protected status. And it allows any citizen or group to intercede on behalf of a federally protected fish.

The court challenge is the first against the river-deepening plan, mounted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Specifically, the conservationists, among them Northwest Environmental Advocates and the Washington D.C.-based American Rivers, charge that the National Marine Fisheries Service erred in December of last year in approving the corps' plan. They say dredging the 600-foot-wide shipping lane to deepen it by 3 feet -- a measure displacing 21 million cubic yards of sand, gravel and rock -- would cloud the water, stir up toxic sediments and damage a fragile estuary.

The fisheries service, the federal agency responsible for salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, had said the project could go forward if steps were taken to protect the estuary, monitor water quality and restore 5,000 acres of tidal wetlands in the lower Columbia.

But a related proposal, to deepen the Willamette River to Portland, has been put on hold because of toxic contaminants in the Portland harbor.

Business groups, led by a coalition of six ports, insist the deepening is necessary for the next generation of container vessels that are wider and draw more deeply. The project also has the backing of most political leaders in the Portland area, although Astoria, at the mouth of the river, strongly opposes it for what it believes will be damage to crab and salmon habitat.

Congress voted last year to approve the dredging on the condition that the corps approve it. The corps did so in a draft document last year and is expected to issue final approval this month.

Corps officials said Monday that they did not anticipate changing their plans, and project supporters said they expected the deepening effort to go forward.

"We feel we are making progress," said Dianne Perry, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, which represents the ports of Longview, Kalama, Vancouver and Woodland in Washington and Portland and St. Helens in Oregon. "It's an important project for the region, an important project for the nation."

But conservationists who filed the lawsuit expressed optimism because the Endangered Species Act affords opportunity for challenges -- not unlike a lawsuit by American Rivers in 1994 that succeeded in forcing the corps to release more water from federal dams to aid salmon and also to weigh dam removal to aid salmon. All Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, including protected stocks that spawn in the Willamette and Snake rivers, pass through the dredging zone on their way to and from the ocean.

"I am optimistic that this very fast and heavy train can be stopped," said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, an Astoria environmental group. "This lawsuit shines a very bright spotlight on any further political maneuverings to force this project through."

Fisheries service officials had not seen the lawsuit Monday. But they said they stood by their action and that they only approved the project after the corps agreed to measures that would result in overall improvement to the Columbia.

The fisheries service, noting that salmon and steelhead migrate close to the river's surface, required that all work take place within 3 feet of the river bottom. It required constant monitoring of water and checking the shoreline for wake damage caused by larger ships. It said the project will stop if greater-then-expected damage is found and that if wake damage were detected, the corps would work with the U.S. Coast Guard to set lower speed limits.

The fisheries service also required restoration of 5,000 acres of wetlands by 2010, including removal of tide gates that keep sea water from flooding wetland areas.

"For the project to go forward, all of these terms and conditions must be met," said Rob Jones, a spokesman for the fisheries service. "The bottom line: We feel very confident that the end result is the estuary will be a much healthier place after the project."

Jonathan Brinckman
Groups Attack Dredging Plan for Columbia
The Oregonian, February 15, 2000

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