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Columbia River Study Revised

by Brent Hunsberger & Brent Walth
The Oregonian, January 4, 2002

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restated its case for deepening the Columbia River for shipping Thursday, promising to do more to ensure the massive dredging won't hurt protected salmon.

Corps officials also acknowledged that the additional environmental protections -- along with less shipping traffic and the need to clean up polluted Portland Harbor -- will force them to re-examine the price and rationale of the $188 million project.

"We believe that once these activities are completed that the lower Columbia River will be left in a better condition than it is currently," Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said.

The project would deepen the 106-mile shipping channel from Portland to the Pacific from 40 to 43 feet. Ports along the Columbia -- led by the Port of Portland -- have been campaigning for a deeper channel for more than a decade, to accommodate the bigger ships now hauling freight around the world.

The Corps needed to revise its biological assessment after the National Marine Fisheries Service -- responsible for protecting the river's 13 species of threatened salmon, steelhead and bull trout -- withdrew its approval of the project in August 2000.

The fisheries service will now issue a new biological opinion based on the assessment released Thursday. NMFS and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have 90 days to review the report before issuing an opinion on its impacts on salmon.

The Corps' 389-page assessment says the project would avoid long-term impacts to protected fish species, even though some short-term impacts could occur, largely from turbidity stirred up during the two-year-long dredging project.

The Corps also pledged to restore more than 3,000 acres of shallow-water habitat for salmon and to monitor the health of protected species before, during and three years following dredging. The Corps had earlier committed to 4,500 acres of restoration.

Conservationists quickly criticized the revised report, saying it failed to address the bigger problems with the dredging project.

"It's a slight repackaging of a grossly destructive project," said Peter Huhtala of the Astoria-based Columbia Deepening Opposition Group. "It's still trying to shoehorn a justification for an environmentally damaging project."

Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates said the new biological assessment still relies on the Corps to perform "adaptive management" addressing environmental problems as they become apparent during the project.

Bell's group sued NMFS in 2000 over the agency's biological opinion, alleging NMFS had failed to do its job by guaranteeing no additional harm would come to salmon habitat.

Bell said the same problems exist in the new biological assessment.

"The issue should be how to restore the damage already done to habitat of threatened and endangered species, not how can we help mitigate the damage we're about to do," Bell said.

Corps and Port of Portland officials say they spent $2.5 million on the revised report. The Port of Portland hired Parametrix, a consulting group based in Sumner, Wash., to write it.

The port's executive director, Bill Wyatt, said he's confident the new assessment will help the federal fisheries service approve the project.

"It now kind of sets up the next step," Wyatt said. "It will essentially be the green light, if it's positive, about whether this project proceeds."

Wyatt said he also was confident the Corps' plans to reopen the review of the costs and economics of the project will conclude it still makes sense.

"Whenever you open this up again, you run the risk of having unexpected surprises," Wyatt said. "We don't anticipate that."

Rabe, the Corps' spokesman, said cost estimates of the restoration projects won't be available for six or seven months, when the Corps expects to release a supplemental environmental impact statement. That review will update the project's costs and economic benefits.

"We want to make sure that we have the most current and accurate information available," Rabe said.

A 1999 environmental impact statement by the Corps estimated the project would generate at least $2 for every $1 spent on the project.

Some of the benefits, however, may be reduced.

Two shipping lines Hanjin and Evergreen have pulled out of Portland, Rabe said. And the use of a deeper channel in the Willamette River is in doubt: The Corps will not dredge in a Superfund area, and the Portland Harbor was given that designation in 2000 because of its contaminated sediments.

Related Sites:
Army Corps' biological assessment at

Brent Hunsberger and Brent Walth
Columbia River Study Revised
The Oregonian, January 4, 2002

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