Dismissal of Dredging Suit
by Alex Pulaski
A judge on a Portland group's suit rules agencies' reviews
of lower Columbia environmental questions are adequate
A Seattle-based federal judge threw out an environmental lawsuit Wednesday, opening the way for Columbia River channel deepening to begin next week.
The suit, filed last year by Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, had challenged the channel-deepening project on two fronts: cost and the environment.
The group's suit said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not met federal requirements that it perform a complete cost analysis of the project. It also said the National Marine Fisheries Service had arbitrarily approved the project, putting endangered salmon at risk.
Both federal agencies were named as defendants. The Port of Portland and five other ports in Oregon and Washington intervened as defendants in support of the $150.5 million deepening project.
The project, which would dredge the Columbia River by three feet to a depth of 43 feet, is designed to make Portland and other river ports more attractive to shipping lines. Larger vessels can't enter the river fully laden at its current 40-foot depth. Its first phase this year would deepen 13 miles from the river's mouth and another 10 miles from where the river meets Portland.
Deepening advocates said they were pleased to see the removal of an obstacle to the work.
"Some of the questionable accusations in this lawsuit are the same issues that have been raised for over a decade," said Theeme Holznagel, assistant director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition. "We've been very confident in the process over the last four years."
Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, said coastal communities, salmon and taxpayers would pay the price for the "imaginary economic benefits" the project offers. She said the group has not decided whether to appeal.
Among the lawsuit's contentions were that the corps had not fully disclosed the effects on the estuary of removing sediment, had not disclosed potential ill effects from toxic sediments loosed by dredging and had not painted a complete economic picture of the project. For example, the suit said the corps had not accounted for recent developments such as the Port of Portland's losing two of three trans-Pacific container carriers last year.
Point by point, U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez concluded that the federal agencies had adequately performed their duties. He concluded that there was nothing "arbitrary and capricious" in the fishery service's conclusion that endangered salmon would be minimally affected by the channel deepening.
A Senate subcommittee on Tuesday approved $15 million for the project for fiscal 2006, matching the House appropriation and presidential budget requests. The corps estimates the funding would allow dredging to proceed another 27 miles inland next year, to about river mile 40.
But bidding on the corps' initial phase of the project indicates that it might cost more than expected. April bids came in 69 percent over engineers' estimates.
The corps scaled back the scope of work and awarded an $8.7 million dredging contract last month to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock of Oak Brook, Ill. Maintenance dredging in the river began June 1, and deepening is expected to start as soon as Tuesday.
Matt Rabe, a corps spokesman, said the agency still believes the project can be completed for $150.5 million. But as congressional funding lags -- the $15 million for next year is far short of the $40 million needed -- it becomes less likely the project will be completed on time in 2007.
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