Ecology's OK of Columbia dredging work is stayed

Friday, August 15, 2003
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

An administrative judge has temporarily reversed the state Department of Ecology's decision to endorse a $133.6 million proposal to deepen the Columbia River for bigger modern ships.

The three-member state Pollution Control Hearings Board will hold a hearing next week in Lacey to decide whether to make administrative appeals Judge Eric Lucas' temporary stay permanent. But a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that the corps intends to draw up its last official document -- called the record of decision -- regardless of the outcome of the state appeals process.

"We would likely continue with the ROD process, and we would then take a look at what's happening in the state before we made any decisions to move beyond that," corps spokesman Matt Rabe said.

That assertion came as news to Rabe's counterpart with the state Department of Ecology.

"The corps cannot issue its record of decision yet," Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard said. "We follow what the court rules. As long as it's in a stay, it means our decisions are held in abeyance."

Federal law requires the corps to receive the blessing of environmental regulators in both Washington and Oregon. They got it on June 23, when state regulators issued written confirmations that the dredging proposal is consistent with the Coastal Zone Management Act and certified under the federal Clean Water Act.

But a Seattle-based environmental group founded by former Vanalco chief Paul King appealed Washington's decision.

The Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment, or CRANE, cited the Department of Ecology's own past statements that raised alarm about the project's ecological impact. Washington officials noted that channel-deepening will scoop away sand that otherwise could shore up the state's rapidly eroding beaches, while dumping sand on crab habitat deep in the ocean.

In the public interest

The agency has changed its tune since then.

Washington regulators now contend that "short-term" harm to water quality in the river is justified to protect the public interest "for the safe and efficient movement of large commercial vessels to upriver ports." In addition, the department concurred with the corps' contention that the project won't accelerate beach erosion.

CRANE attorneys contended the decision represented an inexplicable reversal of the department's previous positions, and they appealed to the hearings board.

With the corps due to make its final decision as early as this month, Lucas temporarily stayed Ecology's decision.

"If the Corps acts in reliance upon Ecology's certifications before the Board hears and rules on CRANE's motions for stay, these acts will result in actual, substantial and irreparable injury to CRANE," Lucas wrote.


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