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Water Quality Permits Sought for Channel Deepening

by Mark Engler, Staff Writer
Capital Press - December 6, 2002

PORTLAND -- More public hearings are scheduled on plans to deepen the Columbia River downstream from Portland in an effort to accommodate larger oceangoing cargo vessels.

Late last month the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted formal coastal zone management and water quality permit applications to the Washington Department of Ecology. Both Washington and Oregon must approve water quality and coastal zone management permits in order for the corps' estimated $156 million Columbia River Channel Improvement Project to move forward.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development are also reviewing similar permit applications submitted to those agencies by the corps in September.

Public hearings on the permit applications will be conducted ... written comments until Jan. 15.

The corps, for the past 16 years, has been proposing to improve navigation access and boost waterborne commerce in the Columbia River by deepening the main shipping channel to 43 feet. Currently, the channel is dredged to only 40 feet.

In September 2000 the corps brought water quality and coastal zone management applications before Oregon and Washington official, but the permit applications were ultimately withdrawn after environmental regulators expressed concerns that the corps plans, particularly their prescriptions for dealing with the by-products, or "spoils," from the dredging operations, were inadequate and would unduly harm aquatic life and water quality.

Officials within the Washington Department of Ecology expect the application process to go much smoother for the corps this time around, mostly because corps officials and the state have been in constant contact with one another to develop the latest permit applications and most recent dredging plans -- which envision using the spoils for inland habitat restoration projects rather than dumping the sediments at sea.

"Hopefully there are no surprises in this final application," said Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman for WDOE. But she added that it's also important for supporters and opponents of the deepening project to understand that a final decision on approving the permit application has not yet been made. The Department of Ecology is hoping to encourage citizens "to get involved, come down to these hearings, and find out more," said Howard.

Shipping industry, timber, agriculture and natural resource interests in the Northwest, the northern Rocky Mountain states and even the upper Midwest have weighted in favoring channel deepening - a project they say will make the region and a large chunk of the Western United States better able to compete economically with the rest of the world.

Some environmental and fish-protection groups argue however that the basalt rock, sand, gravel, boulders and sediment spoils to be removed from the channel constitute a long-term environmental issue that the corps has yet to fully understand, let alone devise solutions for.

"It's basically a math problem that the corps of engineers has, in terms of finding a place to put the millions of cubic yards of sediment that are going to have to be dredged over the next 50 years of the project," said David Moryc, lower Columbia River coordinator for American Rivers. "We've been dredging this river for over a hundred years, and we've got no place to put this stuff."

Another big environmental problem perceived by those who oppose the channel deepening project is a lack of sand exiting the Columbia River that normally replenishes the beaches north of the river's mouth.

"Long Beach Peninsula has been eroding and a log of people are concerned that it is because we have been robbing sediments of the Columbia River," said Moryc.

American Rivers will sponsor a workshop, "Reforming the Corps on the Columbia and Snake Rivers" on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 9am-3pm, at the Portland State University College of Engineering and Computer Science. 4th Ave. Building, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Class 10.

Mark Engler, for the Capital Press
Water Quality Permits Sought for Channel Deepening
Capital Press - December 6, 2002

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