Corps Ready to Dredge Riverby Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, December 10, 2004
Two decades in the making, a controversial project to deepen the Columbia River for bigger ships finally got the go-ahead on Thursday.
A lawsuit by Northwest Environmental Advocates is all that's left standing in the way.
"We're there," U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Matt Rabe said. "We're now at a point where we have the funds available, and we are going to start dredging in 2005."
President Bush this week signed a spending bill that included $9 million to begin deepening the river's minimum depth from 40 to 43 feet. Although it was short of the $15 million the Corps of Engineers previously said it needed to start digging, the corps announced Thursday that it's enough to start the project after all.
The project will need another $71 million in federal funding to finish the $151 million job.
A White House official said Thursday night that Bush hasn't yet formulated the budget request he will make to Congress for the federal fiscal year that begins in October.
"At this point, I can't speculate about what will or won't be in the budget," said Chad Kolton, press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget. "The budget process is still ongoing, but the administration was pleased to announce support for the project last year and to ask the Congress for the resources to begin construction."
Bush endorsed dredging during a visit in August to the Columbia River shoreline at the Port of Portland's Terminal 6, calling the river "one of America's vital waterways."
Rabe said Thursday the $9 million will enable the agency to begin the 24-month project as soon as May. He said the corps will "piggyback" onto a contract to maintain the river's 40-foot depth near its mouth. Rather than stopping at 40 feet, dredges will dig three feet deeper in the river's first 15 miles. Meanwhile, the sponsoring ports have agreed to draw on some of the $55.4 million already contributed by the states of Washington and Oregon to pay for deepening 10 miles of the shipping channel near Portland and Vancouver.
Because more than half of the shipping channel is naturally deeper than 43 feet, Rabe said the project could be finished the following year.
"This is fantastic news," Jeff McEwen, regional manager of Hanjin Shipping, said in a prepared statement. "Hanjin's new Portland container service uses larger post-Panamax ships, which can use every bit of a deeper channel to import and export more of the region's containers."
Two-thirds of the project's benefits accrue to merchandise hauled aboard huge container vessels, according to the corps' cost-benefit analysis.
A growing segment of the globe's fleet of container ships already drafts more than 50 feet of water when fully loaded, throwing into question the future economic viability of Columbia River ports, even with a 43-foot channel. The lawsuit by Northwest Environmental Advocates challenges the project as an economic boondoggle that will further degrade imperiled salmon runs.
Earlier this year, two of the three container shipping lines serving Portland dropped their service. But dredging supporters said a deeper channel will help to woo those companies back to the market.
Portland remains a bit player in the lucrative container shipping industry, largely because of the city's small size and its location 103 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. But local officials say they expect a deeper channel will help the region capture the overflow of growing international trade between Asia and massive ports such as the one serving Los Angeles.
"The ability to have that additional depth, and the fact that the Northwest is a day or two closer to northern Asia in particular, serves to our advantage in terms of steel, pulp, lumber and other products," said Larry Paulson, executive director of the Port of Vancouver.
Not a done deal
The corps is getting ahead of itself by declaring that it plans to move forward with dredging contracts in the spring, said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates.
Legal briefs in the organization's lawsuit aren't even due until April 1, she said.
If U.S. Magistrate Judge Ricardo S. Martinez rules against the corps, the agency may be forced to break a contract.
"When the corps says spring, it suggests that perhaps they want to start dredging before there's a court decision," Bell said. "I don't know that their confidence is necessarily all that protective of taxpayers' interests."
The lawsuit alleges the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedures Act in offering its biological opinion that the two-year project won't jeopardize the survival of 12 stocks of imperiled salmon and steelhead that migrate through the Columbia River estuary.
It also alleges the corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it failed to evaluate the environmental consequences of dumping dredge spoils on upland sites and far out at sea.
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