Dredging Gets Environmental OKby Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, May 21, 2002
Federal salmon-protection officials gave a green light to dredge the Columbia River shipping channel Monday, saying the $188 million project won't harm endangered and threatened salmon and doesn't need as much habitat restoration as once thought. The biological opinion, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, had posed the largest environmental hurdle for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project. It also clears a cloud of uncertainty that began swirling around the 106-mile project after the fisheries service approved it in 1999, then withdrew its blessing months later. Before the project can get underway, the corps still needs to revise its economic analysis and obtain funding from Congress. "There were a lot of uncertainties when we had our first biological opinion," said Michael Tehan, chief of the fisheries service's Oregon Habitat Branch. "Now we've had a chance to track all those loose ends down." Tehan said the withdrawal gave federal officials more time to examine the impacts of deepening the shipping channel by 3 feet, from Astoria to Portland, which led to a more detailed, 118-page opinion. It also calls for routine monitoring to ensure dredging doesn't harm the river's 13 stocks of endangered or threatened salmon. Critics note that under the latest opinion, the corps promises to do less fish-habitat restoration along the river -- 3,420 acres, instead of 5,500 acres called for in the service's original 1999 opinion. "It's extremely mushy," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, which sued the fisheries service in 2000 over its first opinion. "We're going to carefully look over this biological opinion and evaluate whether we think it meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act." The corps' original 5,500-acre restoration pledge helped avert a "jeopardy" opinion from the fisheries service, which could have killed the project. But Tehan said the agencies couldn't justify that amount of restoration after new scientific estimates suggested dredging would have little impact on key salmon habitat in the lower river's estuary. "Even though there may be differences in the acreage figures, we feel these are very firm projects . . . as opposed to targets thrown out there that may not happen," Tehan said. Tehan emphasized the restoration projects have been proposed by the corps to enhance marshes and shallow water areas where salmon have historically fed, not to repair damage from dredging. Corps officials on Monday had not read the final report and could not say how it might affect the project's overall costs, spokesman Matt Rabe said. The corps, the Port of Portland and five other Columbia River ports have been pushing to deepen the channel for shipping since the late 1980s. The fisheries service had approved the project in 1999. But the agency made the unusual move of withdrawing it in August 2000 after receiving new information about contaminants in young salmon and questioning the corps' commitment to buying restoration sites. The fisheries service also faced a lawsuit from five conservation groups, including Bell's, alleging the agency had failed its mandate to protect salmon. Following the withdrawal, federal agencies and the Port of Portland, the project's largest supporter, assembled a panel of scientists to review science about salmon and dredging. The panel found no certainty salmon and their habitat would be harmed by the project, although four of seven agreed the potential was there. Monday's opinion acknowledges the deepening will cause long-term changes to water velocity, saltwater levels and erosion in the Columbia River estuary. But the services said they think these changes will take place in areas where salmon are not normally present, or along shorelines and shallow water habitat that are not important to fish. The opinion calls for the corps to take special precautions to avoid short-term harm to salmon -- including being sucked up by dredges, killed during blasting or suffocated by cloudy water when dredges dump material in the river. It also requires the corps to monitor the project's effects and establishes an adaptive management team that will review the corps' reports and, if necessary, alter or halt the project. From an environmental standpoint, little now stands in the way of the project. Washington and Oregon environmental officials still must certify that the project meets federal water-quality and coastal conservancy standards. The corps also must complete its supplemental environmental impact statement, which includes a series of public hearings, but no outside agency approval. Part of that statement will include a new economic analysis, expected no earlier than July. The corps has said the project will yield $2 in reduced shipping costs for every $1 spent on construction. But an analysis by The Oregonian showed the return was only 88 cents for every $1.
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