Tuesday, May 21, 2002
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

Federal fish regulators on Monday cleared the way for deepening the Columbia River for bigger modern ships, saying the dredging project won't jeopardize imperiled salmon.

    The biological opinions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service clear a major hurdle for the $196 million proposal. If modern ships are to keep using Columbia River ports, project supporters believe the shipping channel must be deepened from 40 to 43 feet between Vancouver and Astoria, Ore.

    "I think it's a huge step," said Larry Paulson, director of the Port of Vancouver. "This document will be legally defensible as well as being scientifically credible."

    Tribal and conservation groups may test Paulson's assertion in court.

    Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, whose lawsuit two years ago prompted NMFS to withdraw a previous favorable biological opinion, attributed the latest no-jeopardy opinions to political pressure.

    "We know the estuary is extremely degraded, and we ought not to be nickel-and-diming it to further ruin," Bell said.

    The fisheries service, charged with protecting 12 Columbia basin salmon stocks listed as threatened or endangered, cited new computer modeling and research in reaching its opinion that the project won't jeopardize salmon. The agency recommends restoring about 3,400 acres of off-channel fish habitat, but NMFS emphasized the restoration isn't necessary to offset dredging a reversal from its previous biological opinion.

    The fisheries service, whose scientists previously cast the project as an "incremental insult to a degraded system," this time concluded harm to the estuary would be "limited and short-term in nature."

    "We can say with certainty that we couldn't find (long-term) effects," said Michael Tehan, chief of the agency's Oregon habitat branch.

    Not true, tribal groups say.

    "We challenge this biological opinion just squarely at face value," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which viewed a draft of the NMFS opinion three weeks ago. "We contend there will be significant degradation to the overall health of the estuary."

    The Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, is recalculating the economic justification for the project.

    The Oregonian newspaper recently published a series of stories concluding the corps' previous cost-benefit analysis was out of date, relied on faulty data or left out important factors. Though the corps has maintained the project would generate $2 in transportation benefits for every $1 spent, The Oregonian concluded the project would net only 88 cents worth of benefits for every tax dollar.

    U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, said the project is crucial to the Washington economy.

    "I believe that it will pencil out," Baird said. "But even it were to be a few cents one way or another, it's only fair that we should get a little extra support given what we already pay the federal government."

    Baird referred to the fact that Washington residents can't deduct the state sales tax from their federal tax form, a provision that allows the federal government to collect another $470 million per year. He acknowledged, however, that getting the money will be more difficult than it was when Congress authorized the project two years ago. Tax cuts, a recession and new expenditures for the war on terror have all sapped the federal Treasury, Baird said.

    But channel deepening is a worthwhile investment, he said.

    "If you want your economy to prosper, you have to have the infrastructure to make that happen," he said.


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