Court Rejects Arguments Against
by Peggy Andersen
SEATTLE -- A federal judge on Wednesday rejected arguments from environmentalists opposed to dredging of a 103-mile stretch of the Columbia River -- a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project scheduled to begin next week.
The opponents' lawsuit contends the plan to deepen the 600-foot-wide river channel from the Pacific Ocean to Portland would devastate salmon habitat and worsen erosion of beaches in Washington and Oregon.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez concluded the government's decisions "were not arbitrary and capricious.'' He rejected the challenge and granted the summary judgment requested by the defendant agencies, the corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We're very disappointed, not surprisingly,'' said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland, which filed the lawsuit in March. "The judge basically deferred to the federal agencies on every issue. And that's unfortunate -- for salmon and for taxpayers.''
She said no decision had been made on an appeal. The group's attorneys at Earthjustice, a public interest law firm, did not immediately return a call for comment.
At the National Marine Fisheries Service, "Naturally we're pleased,'' said spokesman Brian Gorman. "We always maintained we were assiduous in following the law and using the best science we possibly could, and the court agreed with us.''
The corp's dredging contractor, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock of Oak Brook, Ill., has been doing maintenance work at the river mouth for about two weeks, said corps spokesman Matt Rabe in Portland.
Work is to begin next week, he said, though he could not specify a day.
"The next phase will be to deepen the federal navigation channel beginning at river-mile 3 and continuing through river-mile 16, which is near Astoria,'' Rabe said.
When that stage is complete, "we will evaluate two options in the contract that could also have the contractor deepening a 10-mile stretch near Vancouver later this summer'' -- just under the Interstate 5 bridge at river-mile 106.5.
"We're very pleased to have this ruling,'' Rabe said. "We've always strived to ensure that this project met all the applicable laws, and we're pleased that the judge has now validated the work that we've done.''
The Army Corps' plan is designed to open the river to the latest models of deep-draft container ships and grain vessels, helping Portland and five downriver ports compete for Pacific Rim business.
The plaintiffs contend the project will further degrade an estuary that is critical to salmon survival.
Critics noted that in 1999, NMFS scientists called the channel-deepening plan "an incremental insult to an already degrading ecosystem,'' citing erosion of coastal beaches and deterioration of narrow inlets that serve as crucial salmon habitat.
The lawsuit challenged both routine maintenance dredging and the channel-deepening plan on grounds that they fail to protect 12 stocks of Columbia River salmon.
The corps has said it would work to offset environmental damage with projects designed to help restore the ecosystem, such as dumping some dredged sand and mud from the center of the river along its edges, creating habitat for juvenile salmon.
Other dredge spoils would get dumped into the Pacific Ocean, which critics say would smother a swath of sea bottom teeming with juvenile Dungeness crabs that feed in the nutrient-rich waters at the mouth of the river.
National Marine Fisheries Service: www.nmfs.noaa.gov
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