Port directors, users promote dredging project
Columbia River, WA - Port, business and labor leaders are trying to generate momentum for a controversial project to deepen the Columbia River for bigger modern ships.
The $133.6 million proposal has foundered recently.
Last month, an administrative judge with the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board temporarily overturned the state Department of Ecology's stamp of approval. Meanwhile, Congress provided only tepid support for the project this year, raising the possibility of piecemeal implementation of a project that had been planned to take just two years.
Port, business and labor leaders appealed last week to The Columbian's editorial board, which recently editorialized in opposition to the project.
"I'm not saying everything is perfect with what the Corps of Engineers is proposing or doing," Vancouver port Director Larry Paulson said Thursday, "but certainly, (deepening) is a beneficial value economically and environmentally."
The group, which also included Paulson's counterpart at the Port of Portland, Bill Wyatt, said the project has undergone thorough economic and environmental analysis. They noted that state and federal environmental regulators found any harm to the environment would be limited and short-term in nature, and a panel of economists retained by the Army Corps of Engineers accepted the project's economic foundation.
"Again and again and again, after each of these processes, you get the same result," said David Hunt, executive director of the Columbia River Channel Coalition.
Though the corps found deepening the channel from 40 to 43 feet would reap $1.71 in transportation savings for every tax dollar spent, the agency doesn't distinguish between benefits received by farmers, shipping companies or overseas consumers. The corps calculates that almost two-thirds of the project's benefits will accrue to the higher-value merchandise hauled aboard giant container ships calling at the Port of Portland.
"What may be lost is the local benefit," said Port of Vancouver's Paulson.
Local officials tout the benefits of a deeper channel to the grain ships that predominantly call at the Port of Vancouver.
Jon Schleuter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association, called Vancouver "something of a cradle of our industry" dating 175 years to the heyday of Fort Vancouver. Deepening the channel would have demonstrable benefits to an industry whose profit margin can turn by pennies on the dollar.
Gary Schuld, president of United Harvest, which operates the largest U.S. wheat-export facility from the Vancouver shore, said the 40-foot channel has constricted business as the industry shifts toward larger ships.
"We're not competing as well as we did 10 or 15 years ago with Canadians or Australians," he said.
Business and labor leaders say they believe dredging is necessary to entice shipping companies to continue calling on the Columbia River, an industry that transports $13 billion worth of goods annually.
Portland port's Wyatt added that any concerns environmental groups raise about deepening the channel could just as easily apply to the dredging that already occurs every year to maintain the channel at 40 feet.
If environmental concerns kill the deepening project, he said, they
could also put the existing channel maintenance at risk.