Environmental Lawsuit Seeks
by Kate Ramsayer
Corps defends combination of project with annual maintenance dredging
The U.S. Army Corps of engineers is poised to start deepening the Columbia River shipping channel next month.
That is, unless a lawsuit challenging the environmental soundness of the project is successful.
The recent activities come more than 15 years after Congress directed the Corps to start studying navigation issues on the Columbia River, and 5 1/2 years after Congress gave the Corps the go-ahead to increase the depth of the Columbia's navigation channel to 43 feet.
The Corps is planning to deepen the 103 miles of the Columbia shipping channel from Astoria to Portland by 3 feet. This would allow bigger ships, with heavier loads, to reach ports like Portland and Vancouver, Wash. The agency says that the $150 million project will provide savings of $18.8 million a year for shippers and have an annual cost of $11 million.
Opponents have questioned the economic benefits of the project, and say that dredging the additional feet will stir up sometimes-contaminated sediments, disturbing critical salmon habitat and threatening the ecosystems along the lower Columbia. The disposal of the dredged sediments in a deep water site has also drawn heavy criticism from crab fishermen, because of the potential loss of crab beds and the possibility that the sediments will create hazardous ocean conditions.
The legal battle proceeded Thursday, as Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWEA) against the Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service (now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association).
"The claims against the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NOAA, are basically that they did not evaluate the effects of this action," said Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA. "They just kind of catalogued what kinds of problems might exist, and they really didn't analyze any of the effects."
The lawsuit states that the fisheries service violates the Endangered Species Act with its biological opinion on deepening, and doesn't explain how it can prevent harm to endangered runs of salmon if channel deepening goes forward.
"The project includes absolutely no mitigation for adverse impacts in the lower (Columbia) estuary or the nearshore ocean," said Astorian Peter Huhtala, spokesman for the grassroots Channel Deepening Opposition Group and an NWEA member. And dumping sediments back into the river and onto crab beds in the deep water site is bound to have adverse effects, he said.
"It's on shaky environmental ground, and government scientists have said it's on shaky environmental ground, and both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Corps of Engineers ignored scientific advice and have gone forward based on a political decision."
The lawsuit maintains that the Corps didn't consider all of the impacts of channel deepening and maintenance dredging in its environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency should have looked at the effect that the jetties have on the sediment flow, Bell said.
"If you do an analysis of the effect of the navigation channel, but don't include what's happening because of what you did at the front door, then you haven't factored everything in," she said.
The environmental group also says that the Corps didn't sufficiently consider the effect of removing sediments from the river and placing them in the deep water site, a 14-square mile patch of ocean more than four miles offshore. Dredged sediments are taken out of the river system, which could result in eroded beaches and damage to the jetties, the lawsuit says.
These issues could raise the overall costs of the project, driving down the economic benefit, the suit claims.
"It all comes down to ĺ─˛They need to do a new EIS,'" Bell said.
Officials with the Corps, however, believe that the work can proceed without causing the environmental impacts claimed in the lawsuit, agency spokesman Matt Rabe said.
In early May, the Corps awarded an $8.7 million contract to Great Lake Dredge and Dock Co. to conduct maintenance dredging work at the mouth of the Columbia and along the navigation channel, and also to deepen 13 miles between Ilwaco, Wash. and Astoria.
The contract came from the second round of bidding; in the first round, the Corps had estimated that the work would cost $18.2 million, but received a low bid of $30.7 million.
"We then went back and took another look at what work we needed to do, and what we need to do is maintain the 40-foot navigation channel and maintain the entrance," Rabe said. "And then, how much of the new work can you do on top of that?"
The agency had originally hoped to dredge 20 miles in the lower river, a mile of consolidated material near Vancouver, and 10 miles in the upper river. In the awarded contract, the stretch to be deepened near Astoria was reduced to 13 miles, the consolidated material was excluded, and the 10 miles upstream is an optional item, which the Corps might choose to award later in the summer.
Of the $8.7 contract, $5.8 million is for the deepening portion; the rest is for maintenance. The Corps sees combining the two for efficiency, Rabe said. "We see it just as an extension of that work to dredge down to that extra three feet."
The contractor will start the maintenance work June 1, but the Corps has asked the company to wait a few weeks before starting the deepening project, in case the judge makes a decision on the lawsuit within that time. A decision isn't expected immediately, however.
Although the Corps is deepening less this year than officials hoped, the project should still take about 24 months, Rabe said. But what period of time those 24 months span, he added, will be a result of funding.
U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D- Wash., who represents Pacific County, announced Thursday that he had secured $15 million for the channel deepening project in the House Energy and Water Appropriations Act. That money has to clear the larger House and Senate budgets as well as the executive office before reaching the Corps, however.
Huhtala and Bell expressed concern that if the Corps deepens smaller sections of the river piecemeal as the project is funded, the spread-out time frame increases the overall cost of the project (thereby decreasing the benefits) and causes environmental harm.
The Corps argued that to be cost-efficient, it needed to dredge year-round and get the job done in two years, the environmentalists say. But if the work is going to take longer than two years anyways, it negates the need for the agency to dredge during the months when salmon are swimming up or down the river, like in the summer.
"They're disturbing the river ecosystem in the very months they should be laying off," Huhtala said.
Bell added that project costs could run even higher as the Corps awards contracts for deepening trickier sections of the river.
"They postponed the really expensive stuff so the project looks economical now, but we're only going to run into that later," she said.
Rabe said that the cost of the project is creeping up with the increase in gas prices, and that the longer the project takes, the bigger the risk for escalating costs. But the estimated project cost of $150 million is just that, he said, an estimate. And costs might decrease if dredging companies are more eager to do the work.
The work done this summer in the river depends on what the judge rules in the lawsuit. There are three aspects to the Corps' project, maintaining the mouth and the channel and deepening sections of the channel, Rabe said, and the judge's decision could affect any, all, or none of the three parts.
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