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Corps Signs Channel Deepening ROD; Lawsuit Promised

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 16, 2004

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' director of Civil Works on Jan. 9 signed the final Record of Decision for the $136 million Columbia River channel improvement project and sent the ROD to Congress to be included in the federal government's 2005 budget cycle.

After reviews by Oregon and Washington agencies, the Corps reduced the scope of the ecosystem restoration projects it had initially proposed, from five projects to three by dropping two projects located in the lower Columbia River estuary.

However, by dropping both the ecosystem projects and a plan to fill a man-made lagoon at Martin Island near Kalama, Wash. with dredged spoils, nearly half of the dredged sand from deepening the river channel will now go out to the ocean.

That forces the cost of the project up by $2 million and has some worried about impacts to crab breeding grounds.

While a signature on the ROD apparently gives the final go ahead for the project, which will deepen the lower 103 miles of the Columbia River shipping channel by three feet, Nina Bell of the Northwest Environmental Advocates said her group is still planning to stop the project and expects to soon file a lawsuit with that goal.

"We will be challenging the channel deepening project in federal court," Bell said. In general, the lawsuit will challenge the project on both environmental and economic grounds, but she added that the particulars of the lawsuit will remain confidential until the filing.

The states of Oregon and Washington issued in September their approvals of the Corps project, which are required by federal law. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Washington Department of Ecology gave the project water quality certifications. At the same time, WDOE and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development issued Coastal Zone Management consistency concurrences, but conditioned those approvals on removing from the plan the two ecosystem projects and the fill plan at Martin Island. All three areas are located in the lower Columbia River estuary.

The ecosystem projects the Corps removed from the plan were at the Miller-Pillar and Lois Island sites. The states opposed the Miller-Pillar site located just inside Oregon waters near the Washington shore about 15 miles northeast of Astoria because of conflicts with traditional fishing areas and a determination that the Corps' proposed "ecosystem restoration" project there does not qualify as estuarine restoration work.

The Corps' plan to fill Lois Island, another ecosystem restoration project located just east of Tongue Point near Astoria, would affect the Clatsop County Economic Development Council's 10-year old select area commercial fishery, as well as future water-dependent development. The state asked the Corps to either pay to replace the "select area fishery" if it is affected by the dredge disposal, or to scrap the restoration project all together.

In addition, the permits approved by Washington DOE did not allow the Corps to fill in the lagoon at Martin Island. Recreational boaters voiced strong opposition to losing this popular mooring location. Instead, the state required that a dense barrier of shrub vegetation be planted to help keep people off the island.

The Corps had initially intended to dispose of 7 million cubic yards of dredged spoils from the deepening project, nearly half the project's total expected spoils of 14.5 mcy, at these three sites. Now, however, it will dump that material at a deepwater site four to six miles out into the Pacific Ocean from the Columbia River mouth. That decision is drawing the ire of lower Columbia River residents.

Continuing its opposition for the project, Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group in Astoria, Ore., said his group will continue to seek protection for the estuary, the ocean environment and the lower river economy, which he in the past has said would be degraded by the project.

"This unique part of the ocean is a treasure trove of biodiversity," said Huhtala. "The soft, fine sands of this proposed dumpsite, directly in the plume of the Columbia River, support a wide variety of plant and animal life. There are flatfish nurseries, and there is incredible Dungeness crab production."

He also complained that the Corps intends to dump dredged spoils in deeper areas of the estuary, which he said could harm white and green sturgeon, and that the project could cause silting of Baker Bay on the river's Washington shore and erosion along Washington's ocean beaches.

NOAA Fisheries issued a favorable biological opinion of the channel deepening project in May 2002. It was the second favorable BiOp issued by the federal fisheries agency. The first was issued in December 1999, but rescinded in August 2000. In rescinding the first BiOp, the agency cited new information that the project could have detrimental effects on salmon and steelhead species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the agency was concerned how contaminants from the dredging operation would affect endangered species.

In the mean time, the Corps and six sponsoring ports are in the process of negotiating project cooperation agreements that, once signed, would free the Corps up to begin spending $3.5 million this year to begin work on the remaining three ecosystem restoration features associated with deepening the channel, said the Corps' Matt Rabe. That is an agreement in which each party lays out their expectations. The $3.5 million was included in the fiscal year 2004 budget, which began Sept. 1, 2003, in an energy and water development appropriations bill in November.

According to the Corps and the ports, the project will allow passage for the deeper draft commercial vessels that have become more common in ocean fleets. The project is needed, they say, so they can remain competitive with other West Coast ports. The sponsoring ports are Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Vancouver, Woodland, Kalama and Longview in Washington.

The states of Oregon and Washington through the ports will pay about 35 percent of the cost to deepen the shipping channel by three feet -- from 40 feet to 43 feet. The Corps now estimates the project's cost at $136 million, $2 million more than the previous estimate. Although the Corps will save money by deleting from the deepening plan the Lois Island and Miller-Pillar ecosystem restoration projects, the project will cost significantly more due to the need to transport dredged spoils all the way to the ocean, Rabe said.

He said most of the project's anticipated 14.5 mcy of dredged material comes from the lower one-quarter to one-third of the project's 103 mile scope. Dumping those spoils at the Lois Island and Miller-Pillar sites were least cost, whereas it is much more expensive to dump the spoils 25 miles down the river to the mouth and then four to six miles into the ocean, according to Rabe.

The Corps has re-estimated the benefits of a deeper channel to the economy, saying that the project will return $1.71 in benefits for every dollar spent.

Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:
Record of Decision:
Northwest Environmental Advocates:

Mike O'Bryant
Corps Signs Channel Deepening ROD; Lawsuit Promised
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 16, 2004

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