Shallow Water Stirs Up Deep Problem
by Cassandra Profita
The Daily Astorian, January 25, 2008
As the window closes, some dredging projects still up in the air
Port of Astoria leaders have grown to fear the month of February. And they're not alone.
As Feb. 1 draws near, public agencies and private companies alike are reminded that there's only one month left to complete maintenance and construction jobs in the Columbia River.
It's the shortest month of the year, and for those who are trying to finish dredging projects, it goes by fast.
For the Port, at least in recent years, it's been a month of nail-biting, finger-crossing and begging for an extension.
Once again this year, the agency is still waiting for the federal permit to finish maintenance dredging around its piers, though the four-month in-water work window opened in November. Dredge permits for the city of Warrenton and Warrenton Fiber Co. are also in limbo because of hang-ups in the permitting process, which requires interlocking approvals from two federal and three state agencies.
On Tuesday, local leaders met with staff representatives Fritz Graham of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's office and Ann Richardson of U.S. Rep. David Wu's office to air their frustrations and explore possible solutions to what has become an annual headache and massive budget constraint.
"What we really need is an advocate to streamline this situation," said Port Commissioner Larry Pfund. "(The permitting agencies are) not the ones losing their ports and businesses. When you put all these agencies together, it's so complex, it's like the knot you can't tie."
New rules raise costs
The lengthy dredge permitting process has grown onerous for applicants on the lower Columbia River as restrictions on dredging contaminated sediment from the river tighten to protect threatened and endangered fish.
Port Commissioner Dan Hess said the time-consuming process has put the Port in a situation where "you still don't have your permit and it's time to start applying for next year's permit."
Local governments typically use a relatively cheap in-water disposal dredging method, pumping sediment into the river's shipping channel on the outgoing tide. But if tests show higher levels of contaminants along the river bottom it triggers federal rules requiring dredged sediment to be stored on land at a much higher cost.
The cost difference, according to acting Port director Ron Larsen, is $27 per square yard. At that price, dredging the West Mooring Basin would cost more than $1.6 million, he said.
Water flows in the estuary cause sediment traveling down the Columbia River to settle into local docking areas, often bringing upriver contaminants with it. The unfortunate arrangement puts the burden of environmental regulations on lower river groups that need to move the sediment to increase water depth at their docks.
"We're responsible for everybody else's garbage flowing down the river," Port Commissioner Bill Hunsinger told Graham and Richardson.
Some areas along the Port's waterfront are still clean enough to dredge using in-water disposal, and since November, the Port has completed dredging on the face of Pier 1 and two other locations off Pier 2 and 3 using this method. But other areas, such as the mooring basins, will require upland disposal. Because of the high cost of putting the sediment on land, the Port hasn't dredged its marinas in five years, and Larsen said they're becoming dangerously shallow.
"We're about at the point where something needs to be done or we aren't going to have a West Mooring Basin," Larsen told Graham. "We're starting to lose viability of Port operations because we don't have the space to get boats in and out."
Federal agencies blamed
Warrenton City Commissioner Dick Hellberg said the city of Warrenton has a smaller budget than the Port and has to maintain two marinas. Contaminants detected in the Hammond Boat Basin will require dredge spoils to be stored on land.
"It's totally unconscionable for our government to put this kind of hardship on our local governments ... and spend millions to deepen the Columbia River for the Port of Portland," he said.
Negotiations between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on how to regulate dredging projects have also drawn out the permitting process over the past year.
Warrenton Fiber only needs to dredge 100,000 cubic yards of sediment from Tansy Point to maintain enough depth for a barge to pick up wood chips from its log yard. Normally, a project that small would be streamlined through the permitting process, said company representative Steve Fulton, but the negotiations between the Corps and NOAA on a Standard Local Operating Procedures for Endangered Species agreement have delayed his project by six months.
While the new agreement is being worked out, Fulton said he'd like to have his project "grandfathered in" under the old rules, which expired in November. That way he could get the project done within this year's in-water work window. If his company can't dredge, it will cost more than five times as much to truck the wood chips to paper mills upriver.
"We're all paying for this bureaucracy that's completely out of control," said Port Commissioner Kathy Sanders. "If this country doesn't want to have any economic growth, they're headed the right way. It's just insane."
The Port presented Graham and Richardson with short-term and long-term solutions to its dredging problems.
Both will require significantly more funds than the agency has to spare.
Port leaders want to build an upland dredge disposal facility along the east side of Pier 3 by enclosing the exposed pilings in sheet metal. If permitted, the facility would allow the Port to keep the riverfront dredged for about five years at an estimated cost of $4.5 million.
Then, their idea is to add breakwaters to both ends of the Port's west-end facilities to reduce the sediment flow into the docks and thereby cut down on the need to dredge in the future. The cost of that project is unknown but the breakwater recently built around the East Mooring Basin cost about $20 million.
"We need money to find a solution to this, so we don't have to spend seven to eight months dredging and we can put money into fixing our docks," said Hunsinger. "Our docks are falling apart, but we can't fix them."
Graham said he would type up a report on the leaders' requests, "and we'll go from there."
Richardson said getting the Port's projects into the federal budget as earmarks will be tough, but that the ideas are worth exploring.
"This has been a problem for a really long time," Richardson said after the meeting. "For awhile they were trying to do some one-stop shopping to streamline dredge permits but it sounds like it hasn't worked. ... The Corps and NOAA will tell you they're under funded and need more staff, but surely there must be a way to work this out."
Meanwhile, the Port's compliance officer Lora Eddy is working to secure a five-year dredge permit that should be ready next month. She said she's seen progress in working with the permitting agencies, and once the new permit is in place it will ease the Port dredging pains.
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