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Port Dredging Hangs on Soil Report

by Cassandra Profita
The Daily Astorian, October 25, 2006

Contaminant levels will decide method to be used to deepen water around piers 1, 2 and 3

The four-month work window for dredging around the Port of Astoria's marinas and slips opens next week, and officials are pinning their hopes on upcoming test results that would allow them to proceed with maintenance work.

The port is planning its dredging carefully this year to be sure it identifies contaminated sediment and handles it properly while clearing the way for boats and ships to dock in Astoria.

Port director Peter Gearin and port manager Ron Larsen met with project managers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Monday and received approval to re-test areas in the port's marinas and slips for contaminants that would affect this year's maintenance dredging.

The agencies decided the port could obtain the desired flow-lane permits, which allow for sediment to be deposited in the Columbia River shipping channel, through an expedited application process if the levels are within regulations.

"It's a big breakthrough," said Gearin. "We can get tests back in a couple of weeks. If those tests show that we're clean, or underneath the limits, they can act really quickly on it."

There are two things that can "drag out" the process of receiving dredge permits, he said. One is a biological opinion and the other is a sediment sampling plan. The port already completed both earlier this year, and the Corps and NOAA have agreed to accept those documents with the new test samples in an application for flow-lane permits.

Previous testing has shown DDT, a banned pesticide, has settled in the sediment the port needs to remove from Piers 1, 2 and 3 as well as the West Mooring Basin. The upcoming tests will look for DDT as well as PCBs, industrial chemicals also called polychlorinated biphenyls, and PAH, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

High levels of contaminants in sediment change the type of dredging permit the port can obtain from the Corps. The port prefers flow-lane dredging, but if testing shows the contaminant levels in the sediments are above the limits allowed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the port's only option will be to remove the sediment from the river and dispose of it in an upland location.

The port does have a flow-lane dredge permit for the face of Pier 1, but that work has yet to be scheduled, according to Larsen. And that leaves several critical areas that can only be dredged with upland disposal permits, including the base of Pier 1 in front to Bornstein's Seafoods, an area for the Oregon Responder at Pier 2 West and an area for the haul-out facility and Englund Marine at Pier 3 East.

The port has one upland location on Pier 1 that holds 75 cubic yards of sediment, but the cost of the additional sediment disposal would prevent much of the critical dredging from taking place this year if the port cannot obtain flow-lane permits, according to Larsen.

"The state did a study that said we'd need all of Pier 3 just for one dredge season, so as a practical matter we don't have any room (for upland disposal)," said Gearin.

Larsen said there are other options for upland disposal, but they are too expensive to be viable. If the tests come back too high, he said, some parts of the port could end up not being dredged this year.

"We can still bring the cruise ships in, but we could have depth problems with ships delivering seafood to the processing plants. They may only be able to deliver during high tide, and that is unacceptable to them."

Dredging troubles have been plaguing the port for more than two years and causing rifts with state and federal agencies charged with regulating contamination in water and on land.

Traces of DDT were first detected in the port's dredge spoils in summer 2004 and led the port to look for an upland disposal location, where acceptable levels of DDT are about 1,000 times higher than they are in the water. Officials have determined the contamination is flowing downstream from other parts of the river and settling into slips in the estuary.

Early last year, the port deposited dredge spoils contaminated with DDT in a holding pond on Pier 3 without following proper procedures. The Oregon Department of State Lands issued a violation notice and demanded the material be removed from its land, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported the port hadn't properly monitored and tested the sediments.

The port agreed to a $200,000 fine, $150,000 of which could be put toward environmental projects, removed the material from DSL land and created a new containment facility at the north end of Pier 1. The remaining dredge spoils were used as fill at the Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton. The port also agreed to a compliance program and hired a compliance officer to apply for permits and make sure all requirements met are for dredging work.

Cathy Tortorici, the chief of the NOAA branch for the Oregon Coast and Lower Columbia River, attended the meeting with the port Monday and said the conversation was much needed.

"We talked about the confusion they have and confusion we have," she said. "We're going to have more conversations like this on a regular basis to really lay out a long-term plan for dredging ... We've been trying to have this kind of dialogue with them for an extended period of time, but they have not had the personnel to deal with these kinds of things."

The new tests will be more detailed and their contents will be recalculated to give NOAA the data it needs to approve or deny flow-lane disposal, said Catie Fernandez, a specialist at the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, who is helping the port with compliance. The port recently hired Laura Eddy to work at CREST on dredging compliance issues. She has not begun work at CREST yet.

"NOAA is particularly concerned with the effects of the contaminants on salmon," said Fernandez.

Karla Ellis, project manager for the Corps, also attended Monday. She said if the new tests fit within the limits for contaminants set by NOAA, the Corps can issue a modification to the upland disposal permits the port already has to allow flow-lane disposal.

But she said the future is still looking shaky for the port, which needs to do dredging every year to maintain industries on the water.

"Even if levels do come back with a lower level of contaminants, there's a chance a portion of it will have higher levels, and they're not set up to do upland disposal," said Ellis. "We're going to put our heads together to develop upland sites for future dredging, but these tests they're going to conduct in next couple weeks will be very telltale in terms of what kind of contaminates we're dealing with and what the future will hold."

Cassandra Profita
Port Dredging Hangs on Soil Report
The Daily Astorian, October 25, 2006

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