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Commentaries and editorials

Columbia Channel Project
Still Faces Conditions

by Shelly Strom, Business Journal staff writer
Portland Business Journal, June 30, 2003

A proposal to deepen the Columbia River Shipping Channel received key approvals from several state agencies this month. But the approvals all have many complicated, potentially costly conditions attached. And the project's sponsor, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said it will take approximately one month to analyze conditions contained in the approvals. Agencies--Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Washington State Department of Ecology and Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development--submitted their approvals with the Corps June 23 and June 24 .

Whether and how the project will go forward remains to be seen. Critics have suggested it may not. "If the Corps is ingenuous and forthright about accepting these conditions then the project is no longer feasible," said Peter Huhtala, who's led opposition to the project in Astoria. Huhtala suggested the conditions now in place will force the Corps to jump through numerous hoops for a project that has never gone smoothly and still hasn't received a firm federal funding commitment.

The Corps' proposal to deepen the Columbia River Shipping Channel has been in the making for more than a decade. Pre-construction and construction costs are expected to top $150 million--costs supporters say are justified in light of the savings to shippers who use the channel. Officials from a consortium of ports along the lower Columbia River ports say a deeper channel is integral to maintaining a regional shipping industry.

The project would deepen the river between its mouth at the Pacific Ocean up approximately 100 miles to Portland and Vancouver, Wash. To do so, the Corps would have to remove about 19 million cubic yards. That's roughly equal to 47 buildings the size of the U.S. Bancorp Tower in downtown Portland.

DEQ justified its lengthy list of conditions as a means to ensuring water-quality standards will be maintained. "The conditions in this certification will assure that the project will meet water-quality standards," said DEQ Director Stephanie Hallock. "Through the requirements placed on the Corps the state will stay intimately involved in the project to ensure that water- quality standards are met and beneficial uses are protected," Hallock said.

For instance, DEQ wants the Corps to sample more sediment for toxins and to limit some dredging to four months when native salmon runs are least likely to be effected.

ODLCD told the Corps it can't dump dredge spoils as planned at controversial spots within the estuary. The spots, known as Miller-Pillar, are used by commercial fisherman.

Although critics of the controversial project have suggested conditions might derail the project, Corps officials have not said the agency will back away from the project. "We are in the process of going through it all. If it changes costs, we will have to go back and look at our cost estimate as well," said Corps spokeswoman Laura Hicks.

The Corps has suffered setbacks with its proposal to deepen the Columbia River Shipping Channel in recent years. In 1999, with some preliminary approvals, including DEQ's key authorization, officials sounded optimistic that construction was just around the corner. But by the following year, environmentalists sued to block the project, saying state and federal agencies hadn't done enough to protect salmon in granting approvals to the Corps. After courts made preliminary decisions in the lawsuit, agencies withdrew support. In order for the agencies to reconsider, the Corps redid significant portions of its plan.

The Corps submitted its final, overhauled proposal to the agencies in 2002.

Shelly Strom, Business Journal staff writer
Columbia Channel Project Still Faces Conditions
Portland Business Journal, June 30, 2003

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