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Deep Trouble for Dredging Project?

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, August 23, 2004

August 13 should have been a high-water mark for supporters of a plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel.

President Bush, standing along the Columbia River shoreline at the Port of Portland, threw the power of the presidency behind the $150.5 million project. The project already enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the Pacific Northwest. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, have jockeyed to get credit for nailing down the money necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers to start digging.

But instead of celebrating, supporters busied themselves justifying the economic foundation of the project in light of decisions by two container shipping companies to drop service to Portland.

"K" Line America announced this month that it intends to drop Portland from its trans-Pacific container service at the end of the year. "K" Line's decision followed Hyundai Merchant Marine's announcement last month that it also planned to drop container service to the Columbia River. That leaves Hanjin Shipping as the only company sailing massive container ships 103 miles upriver to the Port of Portland.

A deeper river enables ships to haul more cargo, enabling them to be more efficient.

The loss of "K" Line and Hyundai is a blow because they haul the most valuable merchandise, which supports the Corps of Engineers' economic justification to deepen the river.

Twenty-foot boxes represent a growing niche in the shipping industry, and they're hauled aboard the world's biggest ships. Containing everything from french fries to television sets, the boxes can be moved easily between ships, rail cars and trucks. Going forward, shipping companies are primarily focusing on the biggest, deepest ports, because they enable them to move more volume.

Grain ships, which dominate at the Port of Vancouver, will take advantage of the deeper channel but their business alone doesn't justify federal taxpayers deepening the river.

Port of Portland officials say they're confident they can entice shipping companies back to the Columbia, and dredging supporters concur.

"All the exports are still here," said Dave Hunt, director of the pro-dredging Columbia River Channel Coalition.

Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, said deepening the shipping channel will help to convince shipping companies that it's worth the trip when they can load more fully. Although "K" Line officials have said the channel depth had nothing to do with their decision to drop Portland adding a new stop in Shanghai prompted the company to pare back service in the Pacific Northwest Wyatt maintains the Columbia can continue to fill a niche for shipping companies.

"There are river ports all over the world that are very successful," he said.

Tony Hupfeld, senior vice president for "K" Line America in Richmond, Va., agreed with Wyatt's contention that robust container service eventually will return to Portland as increasing global trade crowds berths in larger ports such as Tacoma.

"People expect volumes in imports to double in 20 years," Hupfeld said. "It's very unlikely all the other ports can handle that."

Despite the loss of Hyundai and "K" Line, a Corps of Engineers spokesman in Portland said Columbia dredging still makes economic sense.

"We expect there will be natural short-term fluctuations in how commodities are shipped in and out of the Columbia River," corps spokesman Matt Rabe said. "Over the long term, you see these shippers leave and other shippers come in to take their place."

As Congress prepares to convene next month, Murray and U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, will visit with dredging supporters today at the Port of Vancouver. Both have advocated the river-deepening plan.

"I've been working on this for, I think, my entire life now," said Murray, who attended last week's visit by Bush. "It's a good step in a very long process, but we still have a lot of work to go in front of us."

Besides nailing down the $15 million to start the project next summer, Congress and the president also must provide $70 million to finish it. Washington and Oregon state legislatures have already provided $55.4 million, and Congress has chipped in $10 million for environmental restoration projects.

"From this point forward, it will appear in the president's budget," Wyatt said.

The project still must overcome a lawsuit filed by Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, which contends it is an economic boondoggle that will harm salmon habitat in the river's estuary.

Leaders of 10 regional and national environmental groups fired off a letter to Bush this week underscoring the points raised in the lawsuit.

"The deepening proposal ignores both sound science and sound economics," they wrote.

Signatories included the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, National Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Friends of the Earth, Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club, Salmon for All, American Rivers and Idaho Rivers United.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Deep Trouble for Dredging Project?
The Columbian, August 23, 2004

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