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Request to Dredge River Denied

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, September 30, 2000

Because of worries about fish, Oregon and Washington refuse permits
to let the Army Corps of Engineers deepen the Columbia

Oregon and Washington on Friday said no to a massive effort to deepen the 103-mile stretch of Columbia River between Portland and Astoria, citing serious concerns about the impact of sullied river water upon fish habitat.

The states' denial of water quality permits to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes five weeks after the National Marine Fisheries Service revoked its approval of the project. The states and fisheries service have similar concerns about what would happen to endangered salmon and steelhead if three feet of rock, sand and mud were removed from the bottom of the Columbia River Estuary.

Friday's action places the future of the project -- seen by the ports of Portland and Vancouver, Wash., and four others as key to maintaining a competitive edge in maritime commerce -- in doubt. A deepened shipping channel, they say, would allow larger, more-fully laden ships to navigate the river. Yet just months ago the project seemed assured, with Congress in 1999 having passed a bill that authorized spending $183.6 million on deepening the Columbia shipping channel.

Dredging proponents, including corps and port officials, refused to give up Friday. A representative of the ports said the deepening project would not cause environmental damage.

"This thing is not over," said Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the Port of Portland who spoke, as well, on behalf of the ports of St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Longview, Kalama and Woodland in Washington.

But environmental regulators from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Washington Department of Ecology revealed deep concerns over how deepening might harm a stretch of the Columbia that is crucial to salmon and other wildlife. Their top worries cited Friday:

The Washington Department of Ecology also told the corps it is worried that removing sand from the estuary bottom would cut the sand supply to state beaches and quicken the pace of erosion. Washington beaches are shrinking dramatically.

"The coast is eroding over time and will erode even worse if the sand is lost," said Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology. "This is new information, and it gives us even more pause about the proposal."

The state agencies did not rule out future approval of the project.

Asked about the project's future chances Russell Harding, a manager at the Department of Environmental Quality, said: "Our view is, we don't know. We are willing to sit down and search for alternatives that will allow the project to proceed as long as it meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act."

But conservationists and tribes, who have battled the project for years, doubted it would survive.

"This is the moment of about-face," said Peter Huhtala, executive director of Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, based in Astoria. "I don't believe the project can meet these conditions as well as clear the hurdles the fisheries service has set up."

Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said tribes were celebrating. "We think this is going to drive a pretty sizable nail through the coffin of this project."

According to Oregon officials, the corps rejected two offers to withdraw the application and avoid the embarrassment of both states' rejection.

The corps apparently refused, despite a last-minute plea Wednesday by Gov. John Kitzhaber to district engineer Col. Randall J. Butler.

"I strongly believe withdrawal remains the most appropriate action if this project is to proceed," Kitzhaber wrote in a letter to Butler on Wednesday. "This provides us the greatest assurances that environmental issues can be dealt with collaboratively."

Kitzhaber gave the corps a deadline of 4 p.m. Thursday.

"If the application remains for processing," Kitzhaber told Butler, "the agencies face no other choice than to deny water quality certification . . . I do not believe this is the optimum achievable outcome here."

Jonathan Brinckman
Staff writer Brent Hunsberger contributed to this report.
Request to Dredge River Denied
The Oregonian, September 30, 2000

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