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Know the West

Is a dredging project drowning?



After 10 years and millions of dollars in studies, plans to deepen more than 100 miles of the Columbia River shipping channel have hit troubled waters (HCN, 1/17/00: A dredging dilemma).

Last August, the National Marine Fisheries Service responded to a lawsuit threat by rescinding its earlier approval. The agency cited new worries about how dredged-up contaminants might hurt salmon habitat, endangered fish and water quality.

Now, environmental regulators in Oregon and Washington, charged with ensuring that projects pass Clean Water Act standards, say they won't give their blessing either.

The double whammy leaves channel-deepening up in the air, and opponents such as Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, say, "this project is on the rack; now it's time to turn the thumbscrews."

Supporters continue to believe the $196 million project can bounce back. Some Northwest congressmen sent a letter to the NMFS urging the agency to work quickly with the Corps to find a way to deepen the channel while answering concerns about environmental problems. They want a new biological opinion from the fisheries service by June 2001.

"Deepening the Columbia River is essential if businesses, farms and ranches that rely upon the river for transportation are to maintain their competitive access to world markets," says Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. "It is critical that both NMFS and the Corps finish this process in a quick and environmentally sound manner."

Copyright 2000 HCN and Mike Stark