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Bush Backs Columbia Dredging

by Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, August 20, 2004

President Bush’s announcement in Portland last week that he is including $15 million to deepen the Columbia River in his 2005 budget proposal was lauded by Pacific Northwest political and economic leaders.

Republicans, Democrats and business and labor groups joined the natural resource industry in praising the move, saying the larger freight vessels the dredging will allow will provide jobs and improve the region’s economic security.

“The deepening of the Columbia River means jobs and competitiveness for our entire region,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, supports the effort. They are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that must approve the Bush administration’s request.

The administration decision is based on the conclusion that deepening the Columbia River benefits the economy and doesn’t harm the environment, said Michael Catanzaro, deputy natural resource policy director for the Bush-Cheney reelection team, in a telephone interview.

“If you look at the economic side of it, the case is really clear-cut. You’ve got 40,000 jobs that are dependent upon this system, and you’ve also got billions of dollars at stake,” said Catanzaro. “Dredging the river another three feet is critical for the Northwest and for the nation.

“At the same time we had to make sure that the environmental concerns were met. We had a scientific, peer-reviewed panel that looked at the science of this and determined ... that there would be very little, if any, impact on salmon and steelhead habitat and other areas.”

Catanzaro noted that “broad, bipartisan support” for the project exists in both houses of Congress. That support will increase the likelihood that the full $15 million will be approved and not the $3 million approved in the House last spring.

Although decisions by “K” Line and South Korea-based Hyundai Merchant Marine to halt service to Portland didn’t necessarily play into Bush’s decision, they “help bolster the case” for deepening the channel to 43 feet from the current minimum depth of 40 feet, said Catanzaro.

“We do need to urgently move forward on this, because, as the president has said, this is a competitiveness issue, and it is an issue involving an industry that is evolving and changing rapidly,” said Catanzaro. “We need to respond to that and we need to make sure that our infrastructure accommodates those changes. We need to do it immediately.”

“Obviously, it would have been great to have the entire project completed right now,” said Dave Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition, which supports the effort. “But we’re very pleased with the president’s announcement. It was exactly the request we had made with the Bush administration.”

Hunt said the president’s 2005 budget amendment not only “exponentially improves” the chances House and Senate members will agree to fully fund the project at $15 million for next year, but also brightens the outlook for the 2006 and 2007 budgets, in which Congress will likely be asked to approve $70 million toward the total $130 million-$150 million price tag.

Hunt said Northwest politicians and proponents of deepening the shipping channel are to meet Aug. 23 at the Port of Vancouver, Wash., to discuss the future and celebrate some of the other recent successes they’ve enjoyed such as Oregon’s sale earlier this month of lottery bonds to support the state’s share of the costs and signing the “project cooperation agreement” last month.

At least one environmental challenge remains that could sink the project, although Hunt said Aug. 17 it’s not one he’s particularly worried about at this point.

Seattle-based Earthjustice and Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates are gearing up to argue a case they filed in federal court in March alleging that in 2002 the National Marine Fisheries Service improperly approved the deepening proposal. The groups claim that dredging damages salmon habitat and seek to stop the deepening and channel maintenance operations in the lower Columbia River.

“We have a schedule for briefing the case that extends through the fall, so we would expect a decision sometime in the first half of 2005,” Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, said on Aug. 18.

The Bush administration announcement by itself won’t affect the case, although if digging on the project is set to begin before the case concludes “we would certainly have to consider whether we want to pursue some kind of injunctive relief,” said True.

Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Bush Backs Columbia Dredging
Capital Press, August 20, 2004

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