The Channel Deepening Project is Bad for the Environment
The Rationale & Plan for Deepening
Since the late 1800s, navigation channels have been dredged to allow for the safe passage of large, ocean-going vessels. Prior to that time, the Columbia River's shallowest depth on the main channel was 12 feet; now it is dredged to 40 feet deep. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency charged with maintaining navigational waterways across the nation, is now proposing to deepen 103.5 miles of the Columbia River and 11.6 miles of the Willamette River by an additional three feet. The Port of Portland says the project is essential to maintain Portland's position in the on-going competition between western port operations. This is due to an international trend towards larger ships with more cargo. As ships load cargo, their weight increases and they sit lower in the water. The depth to which they sink is called draft. The deeper channel is intended to allow more ships to sail with more cargo and deeper drafts. For some of the largest shipping companies with the biggest ships, that means lowered transportation costs.
Construction is scheduled to begin in January 2002 and will proceed year round for 2½ years. Project construction will require dredging 20 million cubic yards (mcy) of sediment - the equivalent of nearly 2 million dumptruck loads. Over the 50 year projected life of the project, over 400 mcy of sediment will be removed from the bottom of the channel. Dredged spoils will be disposed of in the ocean, in the river, in wetlands, and on upland sites. Until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that levels of toxic chemicals in the sediments of the Portland Harbor in the Willamette River were high enough to warrant Superfund designation, the Army Corps claimed that there were no problems with contamination. Now, the Corps continues to plan for deepening both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers but has stated that it will postpone the Willamette River portion until further studies are completed. More on Sediment Volumes and the Willamette Project
One hundred years ago, the Columbia River Estuary was teaming with abundant fish and wildlife. Today, it demonstrates the ills of past and present human activities -- including dredging, diking, development, pollution, over-fishing, damming, and shipping-related impacts such as oil spills, ballast water, wake erosion, and port development on wetlands and riparian habitat. As a consequence of these and other factors, twelve stocks of Columbia Basin salmon are now listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They are not alone. The Columbian White Tailed Deer, coastal cutthroat trout, and the bald eagle are among twenty-two species that depend on the estuary habitat and appear on the federal list of threatened and endangered fish and wildlife. Many other species not yet listed are showing declining populations due, in large part, to the reduction in available habitat and the elevated levels of contaminants that settle out in the shallow waters of the estuary. For example, populations of smelt and sturgeon have plummeted in recent years. Species affected by toxic contamination include mink and river otter. In its highly degraded state, the estuary is ill-equipped to handle the additional insult of channel deepening. More on the Columbia River Estuary
Twelve stocks of salmonids, bald eagle, and Columbian white-tailed deer are listed as federal endangered species in the portions of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers proposed for channel deepening. Many aspects of the project will run counter to current efforts to protect salmon and other species. The noise and activity of disposal operations coupled with the loss of upland habitat will harass fish and wildlife at the same time as it severely alters the quality and availability of habitat. In order to achieve the new channel depth, the Corps must blast bedrock from the river bottom, a process that will kill and harass fish. The process of sucking sediment off the river bottom traps fish, an outcome termed entrainment. Vessel wakes, erosion, fish stranding and other impacts of shipping will intensify as a result of the deeper channel. Perhaps most important, the project will further disrupt the flow patterns and distribution of salt water in the estuary, permanently altering and simplifying a once-complex habitat for endangered fish. Disposal of sediment will have other indirect effects as well. For example, the Corps proposes to continue disposal on Rice Island, a man-made area where Caspian terns have preyed by the thousands upon salmon.
Because channel deepening is a federal project, the Army Corps was required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regarding the impacts of the project to endangered salmon. NMFS, in turn, called upon its Northwest Fisheries Science Center to conduct an independent review of the project. The Science Center termed the project "an incremental insult to an estuarine system that has been grossly altered by previous dredging." Despite these serious concerns, NMFS issued its formal Biological Opinion giving the project its approval. NMFS did not evaluate how the restoration activities proposed in the FEIS and Biological Opinion will mitigate for the adverse effects of the project nor address the already impaired environmental baseline conditions. As a result of these and other deficiencies in the Biological Opinion, NWEA filed a lawsuit against NMFS. More on Channel Deepening Harm to Threatened and Endangered Species
This massive $196 million project is estimated to produce an average annual economic benefit to local transportation needs of $17 million annually, according to the Corps. This estimate does not include the cost of the project to the environment and human health. For example, the project will also increase the costs of salmon restoration because it will increase pressures on threatened and endangered species. Federal investments in salmon recovery for the Columbia River Basin are nearly $500 million annually.
The Army Corps is notorious for promoting projects that are not economically viable. Although the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was created to ensure that costs and benefits of federally supported projects are appropriate, the Corps has failed to do so for the channel deepening project. In its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared pursuant to NEPA, the Corps failed to adequately evaluate the alternatives to deepening the channel. This means that taxpayers may pay dearly for an environmentally destructive project when other non-structural options might be more economical. Unfortunately, even after ten years of effort, the Corps' EIS does not contain sufficient information or analysis to evaluate the project on these grounds.
Furthermore, the Corps grossly underestimates the costs of the channel deepening project. Scientists believe the Corps has underestimated the amount of sediment that will have to be dredged to construct and maintain the new channel. Annual maintenance dredging volumes for the last four years have averaged more than 175% of the average annual dredging volumes predicted in the Final EIS. Current cost estimates for dredging and disposal operations do not reflect the likelihood that the Corps' sediment estimates are 80-200% too low. Inaccurate estimates of total dredging volumes can have a ripple effect. For example, increased volumes will create additional costs in actual dredging work, locating and purchasing disposal sites, environmental costs of additional disposal sites and increased dredging.
The Corps has also failed to make cost estimates associated with the dredging and disposal of sediments contaminated with toxic chemicals from the Willamette River portion of the project that is in the process of being designated as a Superfund site. Instead, the Willamette River was included in the Final EIS for its benefits and excluded for its costs. Despite the Corps failure to calculate the actual cost of dredging and disposing of the contaminated sediments, the agency has told Congress that the Willamette portion remains a part of the project for which it is seeking Congressional appropriations.
The Final EIS was prepared prior to the issuance of approvals by other agencies. For this reason, the Corps has not included the costs of any restoration actions, conditions, studies and monitoring that federal and state agencies may require. Neither did the Corps take into account the economic losses the crabbing and fishing industries will suffer. The channel deepening project, including its vast plans for ocean disposal of dredged sediment, will result in detrimental impacts on commercial and sport fishing industries, shellfishing, and their suppliers. More on Economic Problems of the Project
The project will destroy 200 acres of agricultural lands, 67 acres of riparian habitat, and 20 acres of wetland habitat as well as raise 400 acres of the estuary floor by 20 feet. The Corps has apparently exempted itself from its own permitting process for wetland fill which would require the Corps to evaluate alternatives, and include avoidance, minimization, and mitigation procedures. Many species, like smelt and sturgeon, feed on the organisms and detritus that collects on the river bottom, especially in deeper areas of the channel. The Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce's Final EIS comments noted that dredging and disposal operations in these areas will destroy habitat which is considered to be of extreme importance to sturgeon. More on Harm to Other Species
Water quality in the Columbia and Willamette Rivers is poor. Both rivers suffer from unsafe pollution levels for many pollutants include toxic chemicals, levels that violate state water quality standards. Poor water quality poses a threat to human health and is contributing to the reproductive and other ills of a variety of species in the area. Deepening the channel will contribute to these existing water quality impairments by revealing and re-suspending the pollutants into the water. NWEA provided extensive comments on water quality impacts of channel deepening to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Toxic chemicals have accumulated in the sediments of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, leading to observed toxic effects in bald eagles, river otter, and mink. Deepening public and private berths, necessary to fully utilize the new channel depth, will unearth significantly more amounts of contamination. Port development will further disturb contaminated sediments. In addition, as sediment sloughs off steeper channel walls, more contamination will be revealed within the river, a condition exacerbated where the channel is widened. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has expressed concerns about the impacts of toxic contamination on threatened and endangered species, particularly bald eagles along the Columbia that have already suffered reproductive failure from toxins. Likewise, the National Marine Fisheries Service has expressed concern about how very low levels of toxic contamination may affect salmon. The Corps has not addressed these issues. More on Channel Deepening Effects on Water Quality
To date, the issue of the total cumulative impacts of the channel deepening project has received very little attention. These impacts are caused by development that is necessary to justify the deepening project. For example, deepening of ship berths and access channels will cause further impacts to salmon and salmon habitat via dredging and disposal and resuspension of contaminated sediment. The National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges that facilitation of vessel transport will lead to the expansion of port facilities all along the Lower Columbia, such as the Port of Portland's West Hayden Island project and the Port of Vancouver's proposed Gateway Development Project. How channel deepening will affect the Willamette River Superfund designation, the dumping of contaminated sediments at Ross Island, and the proposed toxic landfill on East Hayden Island are also important issues. The added impacts must be combined with the direct impacts and quantified and funding secured for mitigation efforts before the project proceeds. More on Secondary Effects of Channel Deepening
The size of the planned ocean disposal site is an unprecedented 14 acres. Located just off the Mouth of the Columbia River, the Corps seeks to dispose of more than 225 million cubic yards of sediment at the site over 50 years, with no mitigation for damages to its aquatic resources. The action would reduce populations of groundfish and crab, adversely impacting the economies of small coastal communities. More on New Ocean Dumping Site
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