Group Asks Corps to Rethinkby Mike O'Bryant
Northwest Environmental Advocates has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw its Record of Decision on its Columbia River channel improvement project in light of new information that NWEA said could substantially change the economics of the project.
The Corps completed the ROD and Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in January 2003 for the project that will deepen the Columbia River navigation channel from Portland to Astoria. However, NWEA said in an Aug. 23, 2004, letter that an announcement by two major container shipping firms that they will leave Portland significantly impacts the project's costs and benefits.
"Since that time (the issuance of the ROD and SEIS in January 2003), significant new information has rendered the Corps' evaluation of the costs and benefits -- and hence, the environmental impacts -- of the project stale and inaccurate," the letter said. The letter was signed by Todd True of Earthjustice for NWEA.
True added that another letter had been sent to the Corps in January 2004 asking if the Corps intended to prepare another SEIS based on changes the Corps had made to the project that were announced for the first time in the January 2003 ROD. He said the Corps had not responded to that first letter.
"When there are such significant changes, the law requires that the agency issue a supplement," said Nina Bell, NWEA executive director. "This is something the Corps should be considering even in the absence of our letter. It is the agency's obligation."
In fact, Earthjustice and NWEA asked the Corps to respond by Sept. 15 whether the agency intends to withdraw the ROD and redo the SEIS. If the Corps doesn't withdraw the documents and redo the SEIS, Bell said it could lead to further court action.
"The purpose of the deadline is to ascertain the Corps' intent," Bell said. "I would expect this will be a matter for litigation as, if they refuse to do a supplement, it will be clearly contrary to legal requirements."
However, at this point, the Corps doesn't know what it will do, said Dave Hewitt of the Corps' Washington D.C. office.
"We have the letter and it's under review and consideration," he said. "How to handle this hasn't been determined. We'll see where it takes us."
Hyundai Merchant Marine announced on July 15 that it would leave the Port of Portland by mid-September and "K" Line announced Aug. 12 that it would leave by December. Both companies cited market forces, not the depth of the navigation channel as their reason for leaving Portland. That leaves Hanjin Shipping as the only major container carrier visiting Portland.
The departure of two of the three container shipping companies "raise serious questions about the Corps' predictions for container shipping. and significantly undermine the Corps' estimates of benefits to be derived from the project," the NWEA letter said. "In fact, it is likely that this new information alone upsets the Corps' projection of a net gain for the regional and national economy."
The $150.5 million project proposes to deepen the lower 103 miles of the Columbia River navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet. The states of Washington and Oregon have chipped in $27.7 million each as their share of the project's cost, or about 36 percent of the total. The project cleared what might have been its final administrative hurdle June 23, when the Corps and five lower Columbia River sponsoring ports signed a project cooperation agreement. The agreement outlines the expectations and responsibilities for each participant. President Bush announced Aug. 13 that he would include the initial $15 million needed to jump start the dredging in his 2005 Fiscal Year budget
NWEA filed a lawsuit earlier this year challenging NOAA Fisheries' biological opinions of all U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's dredging operations in the lower Columbia River and at the river's mouth. In mid-June NWEA amended its complaint to include the Corps in the lawsuit, challenging its environmental processes under the National Environmental Policy Act. It particularly challenged the Corps' Columbia River channel improvement project.
The complaint, which was filed with U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in Seattle, challenges the Corps' SEIS and ROD for the channel improvement project. That case was transferred this month to The Honorable Ricardo S. Martinez, United States Magistrate Judge, United States District Court, Western District of Washington in Seattle.
The Corps is scheduled to begin dredging next summer and for the dredging to be completed in 2007. In the meantime, it will begin work on ecosystem and wildlife mitigation projects that are connected with the deepening project next month. One of its first ecosystem projects will be to return Walker and Lord islands in the Columbia River to their natural state. Currently, the islands are connected due to dumping of dredged spoils from previous dredging operations. In addition, it will begin work at Webb Island to mitigate for wildlife habitat damage that is expected to occur once the Corps begins the channel deepening work.
Northwest Environmental Advocates: www.northwestenvironmentaladvocates.org
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District: www.nwp.usace.army.mil
Columbia River Channel Coalition: www.channeldeepening.com
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs