"When federal agencies such as the Army Corps want to destroy salmon habitat and the responsible fish protection agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), steps aside to let them do it, a lawsuit is inevitable," said Nina Bell, Executive Director of Northwest Environmental Advocates. The lawsuit asks a federal court in Seattle to set aside the December, 1999 approval of the project by NMFS.
The federal fisheries agency was required to rule on the channel deepening project because there are 13 stocks of salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act that use the Lower Columbia River. Every adult and juvenile salmon in the Columbia River Basin must pass through the estuary, where they make the transition from fresh to salt water and back again. The estuary is a critical nursery area for juvenile salmon, as well as sturgeon, smelt, crabs, and other wildlife.
In its Biological Opinion giving channel deepening a green light, NMFS urged the project's sponsor, the Army Corps of Engineers, to conduct further studies and to make efforts to restore habitat in the estuary, but only after the Corps has completed the dredging project.
"Politics has played a huge hand in the government's decision to use a set of flimsy promises to justify the destruction of what little is left of this precious estuary," said Bell. "What else explains the stark contrast between NMFS' recent proclamation of the central importance of the estuary to saving salmon and its go-ahead to the Corps to destroy more estuary habitat."
NMFS scientists concluded that the channel deepening project is "an incremental insult to a degraded system" that is already not meeting the needs of salmon. These scientists also have concluded that protection of salmon in the River estuary may be a key to ensuring the survival and recovery of the species. The Clinton Administration is currently preparing a recovery plan for Columbia River Basin salmon.
"If federal government scientists cannot determine the deepening project is safe for salmon, the project should be stopped or changed," said Rob Masonis, of the Seattle office of American Rivers. "People in the Northwest and taxpayers throughout the country should be extremely concerned about why we are spending billions of dollars trying to save Columbia River salmon while giving the go-ahead to a project that will waste those dollars by killing the very salmon we need to save," said Masonis.
The lawsuit seeks a court order forcing NMFS to withdraw its Biological Opinion and ensure that the Corps does not rely upon it to move forward with the dredging project. The groups also seek to force the fisheries agency to consider the effects of the channel deepening in combination with all the other human activities that have altered the Columbia River's ability to support salmon.
"NMFS' approval of this project is part of a pattern that has brought Columbia River salmon to the brink of extinction. The government approves a project it knows will harm salmon, but promises to study the project's effects and attempt mitigation once the damage is done," said Todd True of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "Neither the law nor common sense suggest that we can restore the salmon by continuing to approve expensive and unnecessary projects that destroy their habitat," he concluded.
Although the Corps' August, 1999 environmental impact statement addressed the entire project which includes six miles of the Willamette River, the Corps sought and gained approval from NMFS for only the Columbia portion. The Lower Willamette River is being considered as a potential Superfund site.
In a related lawsuit, the Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment (CRANE), expressed concerns regarding the destruction of wetlands habitat if the dredging project moves forward. CRANE's attorney, Mark Schneider, noted, "Today we're challenging the deeply flawed decision of the fisheries agency with regard to salmon, but channel deepening is also bad news for many other species of fish and wildlife. We're particularly concerned that this project would destroy the few remaining wetlands in the Lower Columbia that are important not only for salmon but also home to sandhill cranes and bald eagles. There simply isn't much habitat for them left."
Joining Northwest Environmental Advocates and American Rivers as plaintiffs are the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, and Trout Unlimited.