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Channel Project Awaits Key Federal Approval

by Shelly Strom, Business Journal staff writer
Portland Business Journal, October 20, 2003

A decade-old project to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel is expected to reach a key milestone in coming weeks. Project supporters and foes alike eagerly await issuance from the Army Corps of Engineers' Washington, D.C., headquarters for a final approval--known as a record of decision--that will give the $148 million project the go-ahead needed to receive funding and begin construction in 2004.

"Once we get a record of decision [ROD] it means we will have made a tremendous achievement. It closes a 14-year process," said Dianne Perry, project manager for the Port of Portland, one of the project's biggest supporters.

A consortium of supporters, known as the Channel Deepening Coalition, will hold an event to thank countless people who been involved to this point. "We'll be recognizing the folks who've been involved," said CDC Executive Director Dave Hunt. Issuance of the ROD "will be another important milestone. Although it really just closes another chapter of a whole series of regulatory approvals," Hunt said. "But obviously, I wouldn't be surprised if some further action surfaces in the courts. Barring some sort of injunction, [issuance of the ROD] enables construction to move forward."

Critics suggest the project could face multiple court actions. Columbia River fishers say they will fight a provision that calls for filling in a fishing ground with millions of tons of dredge spoils. "The big problem is what to do with all those dredgings," said Jon Westerholm, spokesman for the Columbia River Fisherman's Protective Union. "Unfortunately for us, the site is being donated for the cause."

The area is in Clatsop County and is known as Lois-Mott embayment. In the 1980s, county leaders who wanted to further opportunities for commercial fisherman created a net pen fishery at the site. It is approximately 26-feet deep and is pegged in the corps' proposal as one of several sites for habitat restoration.

Clatsop County's economy would lose $2.5 million annually if the fishery were lost, according to a letter written by Clatsop County acting Director of the Community Development Department Randy Trevillian.

"If they're going to take away Lois-Mott embayment, they're going to have to put up some money for developing a new fishery," Westerholm said.

Westerholm said fishers and county officials who manage the site are "in the process of developing litigation if they're going to continue in this direction." Environmentalists who challenged the project in 2000 say they still question whether state regulators could have imposed higher standards on the project as a means of lessening environmental degradation. Nina Bell, attorney and executive director for Northwest Environmental Advocates, said she is eager to see the ROD to determine how the project has changed since earlier incarnations. Bell also said NWEA will file a court challenge to a component of the project contributed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Bell wouldn't elaborate on details.

The proposal, led by the Army Corps of Engineers' Portland office and multiple ports along the Columbia River, has generated controversy in recent years. The project was derailed in 2000 by environmentalists who said it would harm salmon and other inhabitants of the river. After major review by consulting scientists and shipping experts, the corps altered the proposal and resubmitted it to state and federal natural resource agencies for approvals.

By this summer, the corps readied the proposal for review by its headquarters office. That process, however, was snarled until the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Portland reached a settlement with a Vancouver, Wash., environmental group Oct. 10. Crane, also known as Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment, challenged approvals granted by Washington state natural resource agencies.

The matter was scheduled to be heard in a public hearing the first week of October but was superseded when the discussion turned to the potential for a far-reaching settlement. The settlement calls for the Port of Vancouver to set aside 500 acres for wildlife habitat and contribute $750,000 to Crane. In return, Crane agreed to drop multiple court actions challenging the channel deepening project.

Shelly Strom, Business Journal staff writer
Channel Project Awaits Key Federal Approval
Portland Business Journal, October 20, 2003

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