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Agency Revokes OK to Dredge River

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, August 26, 2000

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants further salmon impact studies
before it allows the Columbia to be deepened

Worried about the health of salmon, the U.S. government on Friday revoked its 1999 approval of a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen 103.5 miles of the Columbia River's shipping lane, a $155 million project intended to keep Portland and Vancouver, Wash., ports competitive.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, charged with ensuring that fish runs listed under the Endangered Species Act find adequate protections, said newly acquired information shows that more extensive study on the effects of dredging is necessary.

The agency's Friday directive reverses its 1999 go-ahead to the corps and is a setback for project supporters. Yet there were differing opinions about the impact.

Dredging opponents, who argue that channel-digging causes widespread damage to salmon and other wildlife, said the action could mean dredging will never happen.

"This action is the handwriting on the wall -- the fisheries service has realized it made a really big mistake when it approved this," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, a Portland conservation group. "The corps argued that its project was fine for the environment. The opposite has been shown to be the case."

But corps officials, and representatives of the ports of Portland and Vancouver, say the project has been merely delayed.

The corps and the ports were unable to say how long the delay will last.

Laura Hicks, project manager for the corps, said the agency maintains its position that deepening the channel will not have any lasting negative effects. "I don't think a 3-foot deepening of the channel, even with their new information, will put an end to the project," Hicks said Friday. "The corps continues to say this would not impact listed salmon, and I'm confident that the information we have is sound and valid."

Once started, the project would take two years to complete. It calls for deepening the 600-foot-wide shipping channel from Astoria to Portland from 40 feet to 43 feet. Until Friday, the corps had planned to complete work by 2004.

The plan, backed by Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Longview, Kalama and Woodland in Washington, would allow large oceangoing freighters to travel the Columbia River fully loaded. About 2,000 such ships visit the six ports each year.

"We think the project is critical to the region," said Dianne Perry, senior manager for the Interstate Columbia River Improvement Project, which represents the ports. "A delay means it will be that much longer before we are able to accommodate the larger ships that are calling on the region now."

A Friday letter from the fisheries service to the corps cites deep concerns. The letter, which corps officials say they did not expect, formally withdraws permission to deepen the channel and instructs the corps to restart negotiations with the fisheries service. The fisheries service has final authority, because it is charged with ensuring the federal protection of listed species.

New studies The letter says the fisheries service has initiated new studies on how deepening the channel would affect water flows in areas of the estuary critical to salmon. The impact must be better understood before the project proceeds, the letter states.

Further, the letter says, the fisheries service is evaluating new information that suggests salmon may be more sensitive to toxic contamination than previously thought.

By its very nature, dredging digs up sediments, many of which contain long-life contaminants from years of industrial and agricultural pollution. Project opponents have argued that fish would be exposed to and damaged by toxic substances once the mud and sand are stirred up.

The fisheries service also is concerned that the corps is neither moving quickly enough to acquire wetland areas nor undertaking studies to evaluate the health of the river, said Mike Crouse, assistant regional administrator of the fisheries service. When the fisheries service in December 1999 gave the corps permission to deepen the channel, it said it must restore 4,500 acres of tidal wetlands.

"All these things were adding up, so we thought it would make sense to take more time," Crouse said.

Crouse added that the fisheries service, which earlier this year recommended against immediately removing Snake River dams to help salmon, is becoming more aware of how important the estuary is to salmon.

"We know the estuary is important in the overall picture," he said. "This is making us very cautious."

The corps also originally proposed deepening an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River -- from the Columbia River to the Broadway Bridge in Portland -- but said in early 1999 that it would put that plan on hold because the lower Willamette is a proposed Superfund site. The entire project, including the Willamette deepening, has been authorized by Congress at a construction cost of $183.6 million.

Jonathan Brinckman
Agency Revokes OK to Dredge River
The Oregonian, August 26, 2000

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