Panel will reject dredging funds

Critics say that deepening the Columbia River channel would benefit shipping firms but threaten dwindling fish stocks

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

By Jim Barnett of The Oregonian staff

WASHINGTON -- A House panel plans to disclose today that it has denied a request from nine Northwest members of Congress for $4 million to start work deepening the Columbia River navigation channel.

Although the request represents just a sliver of the project's $196 million estimated cost, the subcommittee's denial deals another setback to a project that has stirred opposition on economic and environmental grounds.

Critics claim that deepening the channel by 3 feet from Astoria to Portland would only benefit shipping firms while damaging the environment and threatening dwindling fish stocks. Environmental groups are trying to stop the project before it begins.

Rejection of the initial $4 million request is important, they said, because once Congress starts paying for a project, it usually continues to provide money until the job is done. The groups now have precious time, they said.

"That would enable us to work on politicians out here more," said Susan Crisfield of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland.

The energy and water subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee voted last week to deny the request for the money, which would have been used for environmental improvements to the Columbia. Results of the vote were kept secret because the bill also includes money for national security projects.

The subcommittee plans to release details of the bill in a meeting of the full Appropriations Committee today. The Oregonian obtained copies of pertinent portions of the bill from sources on Capitol Hill.

It was a tough year for new projects, congressional aides said. The subcommittee received nearly 3,000 requests from members of Congress. It had $8.85 billion to dole out, so it chose to deny all new construction starts.

Trouble for the Columbia project, however, has been brewing throughout the year. The cumulative effect might have been to derail the project before it could receive serious consideration in competition with less controversial projects. Among the problems:
· In February, Crisfield's group sued the National Marine Fisheries Service. The group claimed the federal agency signed off on the Columbia channel deepening after ignoring evidence that dredging could harm wildlife and the environment.
· In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to list the polluted Portland harbor as a Superfund site. That prohibited the corps from dredging the project's last crucial miles up the Willamette River.
· Opponents have challenged the estimated costs and benefits of the project. Costs are likely to surpass the $196 million estimate, they said. They said most of the benefits would go to shippers who now cannot top off large cargo ships for fear of scraping bottom along the 40-foot channel.
· The subcommittee has a track record of hostility to Northwest interests: It once gutted funding of a massive fish-passage project for dams, saying the region first should study the possibility of breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River.

An aide to Chairman Ron Packard, R-Calif., did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

Project supporters said denial of the $4 million request is not the end of the road.

Rick Finn, a lobbyist for the Port of Portland, said supporters would redouble their efforts next year. But supporters haven't given up on getting some money this year, Finn said. The subcommittee's recommendation could be challenged in the Senate, where several Northwest members sit on the Appropriations Committee.

Finn said the dredging project still enjoys broad support. In addition to the eight congressional members, including all five from Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber and several smaller ports have endorsed deepening the channel.

The report wasn't all bad news for supporters. The project is to receive $923,000 in 2001 for continued study and preparation by the corps, according to a copy of the bill.