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Group Appeals Dredging Approval

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, August 9, 2003

An environmental group fired the first volley against the state Department of Ecology for approving a project to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel.

The group is mining a rich source of material: The Department of Ecology itself.

In a written appeal filed on Friday with the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, attorneys for the Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment, or CRANE, cite a series of the agency's past proclamations to show that Ecology erred in approving the project now.

"This is the perfect case," said Eric Merrifield, one of two attorneys making the appeal.

At stake is the fate of a planned two-year, $133.6 million project to deepen the Columbia's shipping channel from 40 to 43 feet between Vancouver and the mouth of the river.

Project supporters, backed by politicians on both sides of the river, argue dredging is necessary to hold onto a shipping industry that provides thousands of jobs and carries $13 billion worth of goods annually. Critics maintain the Army Corps of Engineers will damage the ecologically rich estuary in return for uncertain or marginal economic benefits.

The corps needs the approval of environmental regulators in Washington and Oregon before dredging can begin.

State regulatory agencies gave the project a conditional thumbs-up on June 23, a flip-flop from the states' rejection of a previous incarnation of the dredging project in the fall of 2000. Seattle-based CRANE, which was founded by former Vanalco chief Paul King, has legal standing only to appeal the Washington decision. Attorneys want the state hearings board to overrule the decision before the corps issues its final decision, due in September.

In the past, Ecology officials were reticent at best and argued the proposal will scoop away sand that otherwise could shore up eroding beaches. They also noted that the project would dump sand on crab habitat in the ocean.

Washington regulators now contend that "short-term" harm to water quality in the river is justified to protect the public interest "for the safe and efficient movement of large commercial vessels to upriver ports." In addition, the department concurred with the corps' contention that the project won't accelerate beach erosion.

Those positions represent a complete turnaround, CRANE attorneys argue.

In its proposed motion to overturn the agency's decision, the group cited Ecology's prior written statements.

"The Corps must redesign the project to eliminate or significantly reduce the loss of sand to the littoral cell to avoid coastal erosion impacts," the agency wrote three years ago in denying the corps' plan. As recently as last year, in written comments on a draft of the corps' current dredging plan, the agency reiterated its concerns about beach erosion: "There has been a severe lack of progress on these issues since that original determination."

The agency dismisses those concerns entirely in offering its stamp of approval on June 23.

Instead of abandoning the project, the corps vowed to monitor erosion and evaluate whether deepening worsens the situation at Benson Beach, where erosion already is eating away at the popular Fort Canby State Park. Corps officials also agreed to work with the state to minimize erosion.

But that might be too little, too late.

"The impacts of the Project on the littoral system will be historical fact long before the adaptive management teams gather to determine an appropriate response," Merrifield wrote, in CRANE's motion to the state hearings board.

The board received the motion on Friday afternoon, but the three-member panel had not yet had time to review it or set a hearing date.

At least one board member already should be familiar with the matter.

Kaleen Cottingham, who previously served as deputy commissioner of state land for the state Department of Natural Resources, once expressed reservations about deepening the river and the harm it would cause to 12 populations of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered. After Ecology rejected the corps' application in the fall of 2000, Cottingham told The Columbian it was time to get serious about saving salmon.

"The phrase up here is, 'Extinction is not an option,'" Cottingham said at the time. "But unless we change the way we do things, extinction may be an option."

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Group Appeals Dredging Approval
The Columbian, August 9, 2003

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