OREGON - Plans to dredge the Columbia River are one step closer to fruition, thanks to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has changed its biological opinion for the third time since 1999.

In late May, NMFS, in charge of endangered salmon recovery, found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to dredge 106.5 miles of the Columbia River's shipping channel an additional three feet deeper won't hurt wild salmon (HCN, 5/13/02: Dredging up debate) (HCN, 1/17/00: A dredging dilemma). The finding reversed an earlier NMFS stance, which itself was the product of several changes of mind.

"We have a lot more certainty now, based on additional studies," says Michael Tehan at the NMFS Oregon branch. "The project didn't raise any red flags."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also signed off on the plan, saying that dredging will not occur in areas critical to other endangered wildlife.

While the agencies say their opinions are the result of more data, better science and a better management process, environmentalists say this is politics at its worst.

"The whole thing is really bogus," says Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates. "All the agencies decided they'd work together to put the project through all the necessary hurdles. Then it became even more of a political situation." The group is reviewing the current plan and considering legal action.