Environmental Group Seeks
by Dylan Rivera
An environmental group moved Friday to rescind Washington state's permission to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel, posing a new challenge to the dredging project.
The group, Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment, filed a motion Friday with the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board, contesting the state's recent finding that the project meets coastal-zone management and water quality laws.
The state Department of Ecology ignored its own science in approving permits for the deepening project, which it had rejected in 2000, said Eric Merrifield, an attorney for the Washington-state-based alliance.
"The Department of Ecology has approved the same project without any statement as to whether their old objections have been satisfied," Merrifield said. "They just say, 'Now it's fine.' We argue that that is arbitrary and capricious."
Friday's filing with the Pollution Control Hearings Board asks that the state stay the permits pending a hearing on the Department of Ecology decision. Such a stay could affect the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' timetable for funding the $133.6 million project, sponsored by Portland and five downriver ports.
The alliance earlier filed a similar motion in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia and another with the state Shorelines Hearing Board.
Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the corps, said it's uncertain what the short-term effect of a stay would be.
"I don't know if there is a specific implication if there is a stay," Rabe said Friday. "But our attorneys will be looking closely at that."
The conflict centers on a proposal by the six ports in Oregon and Washington to deepen the channel from 40 to 43 feet from Astoria to Portland.
The ports say the project is necessary to ensure that shipping lines can take full advantage of the latest generations of deep-draft vessels, which can require 45 feet or more of water when fully loaded. More cargo on each ship would lower shipping costs, they say.
Opponents say the dredging project would disturb sensitive salmon habitat in the river estuary and would dump millions of cubic yards of sand on crab habitat in the ocean.
The alliance contends the dredging will harm Washington beaches by exacerbating erosion.
Before the Columbia was dammed for power and dredged for navigation, the river churned sand out to coastal areas, helping replenish beaches.
But Department of Ecology scientists say that in recent decades, the mouth of the river has become a net importer of sediment, attracting sand away from beaches and aggravating coastal erosion from Tillamook Head, 30 miles south of the river, to Point Grenville, 70 miles north.
The alliance contends the department approved a coastal-zone management permit despite concerns expressed by its own chief erosion scientist that the project could aggravate the problem.
"With the proposed channel deepening project, there is uncertainty about how much the import of sand from the ocean to the estuary will increase," the scientist wrote in an e-mail message excerpted in the suit. "But it certainly will not decrease unless the Corps of Engineers places sand dredged from the estuary onto the eroding shoals."
Rabe on Friday echoed the corps' longstanding position that the project will not damage beaches.
"Obviously the states of Washington and Oregon have agreed with that because they have issued the certifications and concurrence to our project," he said.
Merrifield, the alliance attorney, said the corps is in denial.
"This process would have gone much more quickly if the corps had said, 'There's a coastal erosion problem, and we're going to correct the problem,' " Merrifield said. "Instead, they've said that there's not really a problem at all."
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