Dredging Plan Passes Legal Damby Dylan Rivera
The Oregonian, October 11, 2003
The Port of Vancouver will set aside habitat for cranes
to settle an environmental challenge to deepening the Columbia.
VANCOUVER -- A Washington environmental group on Friday settled its legal challenges to the Columbia River channel-deepening project, freeing the proposal from one of its most formidable opponents and allowing development of a key tract of industrial land.
The settlement requires the Port of Vancouver to set aside several hundred acres for sandhill cranes, potentially at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
In exchange for preserving the acres in the Columbia Gateway industrial area, the Port of Vancouver will be able to proceed with permits for development of about 500 acres there, one of the largest industrial-zoned parcels in the Portland area.
"This agreement facilitates the development of Columbia Gateway and removes a major obstacle to the channel improvement project," said Larry Paulson, executive director of the Port of Vancouver.
Six ports, including the Port of Portland, are hoping that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to deepen the channel from 40 feet to 43 feet will enable them to lure some of the latest models of deep-draft container ships and grain vessels.
Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment, or Crane, has challenged the Gateway development, channel deepening and other Port projects for about 10 years. The concessions the alliance won in the settlement regarded only the Gateway project.
Although the settlement removes Crane from the picture, the ports' push for a deeper channel has several daunting financial and environmental challenges looming. Foremost is a decision by the Bush administration to keep money for the Columbia River project out of the president's annual budget proposals for the rest of his term, forcing backers to fight for every scrap of money from members of Congress.
Port officials also acknowledged the certainty that other environmental groups would sue.
On Friday, Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland, said her group intends to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. She said deepening would erode habitat for endangered salmon.
Nevertheless, Friday's agreement means that within a few days, the project will be free of court challenges. That should free the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pursue more money from Congress, said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland.
"Momentum for a project like this is very, very important," Wyatt said. "This is a huge piece of momentum."
Crane had appealed a decision by the Washington Department of Ecology to allow the channel-deepening project to proceed.
The group argued that the department ignored its own science and experts when it issued water-quality and coastal zone-management permits for the proposed channel deepening. The department defends its decision to issue the permits.
The environmental group's challenge was the first attempt to thwart the channel-deepening project in court since it was redesigned during the past two years. The Washington process threatened to revoke state permits for the dredging project.
A five-day hearing, before the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board, was to begin Wednesday in Lacey but was postponed until Oct. 27 to allow settlement negotiations to proceed.
Columbia Gateway also faces its own challenges. The project still needs state and federal permits for filling and creating wetlands, said David Bartz, an attorney on contract for the port. Initial estimates show construction of habitat in the Gateway area could cost $15 million to $30 million, with another $1 million a year for maintenance, Bartz said.
Under the settlement reached Friday, the Port of Portland will pay $750,000 toward habitat improvements. The Port will pay the alliance, which will forward the money to the Port of Vancouver for expenses.
Wyatt said the money was worth spending.
"The cost of litigation could easily have exceeded the amount that we put into this," Wyatt said.
The Port of Vancouver expects to approve covenants finalizing the settlement Oct. 23.
The Port of Vancouver convened for a special meeting to approve the settlement Friday afternoon. But conspicuously absent was the man who prompted the settlement: Paul King, president of Crane.
Attorneys with the Perkins Coie firm in Seattle said King was not available for comment Friday.
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