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U.S. Fish & Wildlife manager says deeper draft would help export oil

(Aaron Lavinsky | The Daily World) A worker watches as the “Patriot” dredge, operated by American Construction in Seattle, removes watery sediment from the bottom of the Port of Grays Harbor on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. The dredge, which is a 200-ton floating crane, uses a bucket to remove up to 35 cubic yards of sediment at a time.Buy Photo
(Aaron Lavinsky | The Daily World) A worker watches as the “Patriot” dredge, operated by American Construction in Seattle, removes watery sediment from the bottom of the Port of Grays Harbor on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. The dredge, which is a 200-ton floating crane, uses a bucket to remove up to 35 cubic yards of sediment at a time.

The regional manager with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is alleging that the Port of Grays Harbor is trying to get the U.S. Corps of Engineers to deepen the navigation channel into Grays Harbor in an effort to become a “destination” for future crude oil export facilities.

Although Port officials have denied the claim, and an environmental assessment of the deeper draft project conducted by the Corps says that is absolutely not the plan, the regional manager for the sister federal agency isn’t buying it.

In a 10-page letter submitted last week to the Port and the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Manager Ken Berg outlined his concerns with the proposal to deepen the navigational channel by another two feet.

“Our contention is that the Corps’ and Port’s preferred alternative for the Grays Harbor Navigation Improvement Project would facilitate, make possible, and promote or encourage selection of Grays Harbor as a destination for additional, future shipping and port operations, including candidate Crude-By-Rail bulk fluid storage and transloading/shipping operations,” Berg wrote. “These foreseeable indirect and cumulative effects raise for us very serious concerns regarding proximity to the (Grays Harbor National Wildlife) Refuge, proximity to vulnerable habitats that support Endangered Species Act-listed species, and to greater Grays Harbor waterfowl and migratory bird resources in general.”

The Grays Harbor federal navigation deep draft channel is 250 feet wide at Cosmopolis, increasing to 1,000 feet over the bar at the mouth of Grays Harbor, according to the Corps. Corps officials conducted a public meeting in early March to take comments on the project to deepen the channel to its legally authorized depth of 38 feet. The channel was deepened to 36 feet in 1990, but the Port of Grays Harbor asked the Corps in 2005 to consider deepening it again. In 2009, the Corps determined there was a federal interest in doing so, and the process of updating the Environmental Impact Statement began.

The public comment period for the draft supplement Environmental Impact Statement has since been extended to April 8.

Project Manager Josh Jackson said at last month’s meeting that deepening the channel would improve efficiency at the Port significantly — to the tune of $4.4 million every year. Right now, many vessels can’t be loaded to their full capacity, or have to wait on the tides — sometimes for days — in order to move in and out of the Harbor.

The Corps maintains the waterway now by dredging the deep draft channel annually at an average cost of $9 million, removing an average annual volume of about 1.7 million cubic yards of material, according to the Corps.

“It matters because it reduces the efficiency of shipping, it increases the costs of shipping, which ultimately increases the cost of the goods being shipped,” Jackson said.

He said several times that the deepened channel would only allow existing vessels to use the Port more efficiently, not allow any new types of vessels to come in. The economic analysis relied only on current Port commodities, not proposed crude oil shipping.

A press release on March 13 reiterated the Corps position: “The potential two-foot deepening being evaluated is neither designed nor intended to facilitate access for any new vessel classes or commodity types that could not currently utilize Port facilities.”

A round robin of presentations to every city council on the Harbor over the last couple of months also had Port officials saying unequivocally that the deeper draft had nothing to do with the crude oil export proposals.

But Berg is not convinced, contending “that the Corps’ and Port’s preferred alternative for the Grays Harbor Navigation Improvement Project would facilitate, make possible, and promote or encourage selection of Grays Harbor as a destination for additional, future shipping and port operations.

“The Corps and Port have tried, unsuccessfully, to argue that the proposed action would ‘… not result in an increase in the size or number of vessels navigating the Harbor … compared to baseline conditions,’” Berg wrote, citing the Corps’ Environmental Impact Statement. “And yet, on the very next page, the Corps and Port state that ‘… Alternative 3 would add as many as 32 annual deep-draft vessel transits as compared with Alternative 1.’ A future increase to the number of deep-draft vessel port calls is foreseeable, and attributable to the Grays Harbor NIP. However, we do not have confidence that the Corps and Port have accurately or reliably projected the size of this increase.”

The Corps’ Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that three independent projects to bring crude oil and other bulk liquids by train to the Port of Grays Harbor are being proposed for the Port. Two of the proposals, by Imperium Renewables and Westway Terminals, are moving through the permitting process. The third proposal by U.S. Development is still in the early phases. That proposal is at Terminal 3 neighboring the National Wildlife Refuge operated by the U.S. National Wildlife Service.

“A bulk fluid storage and transloading/shipping operation located at Terminal 3 present unacceptable risks to Service trust resources,” Berg wrote.

He added, “The Corps and Port have tried, unsuccessfully, to argue that the proposed action would not change significantly the intensity of future marine traffic.”

But Berg points out that a similar argument was tried on the state Shorelines Hearings Board last year, which rejected those arguments and the environmental permits previously approved by the state Department of Ecology and the city of Hoquiam and found that marine traffic should be studied better to more carefully discover just how much vessel traffic could increase.

“Some content from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement tries to argue that there will be no change, while other content acknowledges only a very modest increase in future marine traffic. However, contrary to these claims, another reputable party (the Shorelines Hearings Board) has concluded that future cumulative effects could very well include hundreds of additional deep-draft vessel port calls per year. …

“The Corps and Port have acknowledged, but not adequately assessed or addressed, the proposed action’s significant indirect and cumulative effects,” Berg writes. “To date, the very real and significant risks that increased shipping and port operations would present to vulnerable coastal and marine ecological resources have not been adequately addressed. The Corps and Port should expect that the Service will seek every opportunity to reinforce these concerns during the months and years ahead.”

CLOSE ATTENTION

Berg pledged that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans to pay very close attention to the potential crude oil export facilities in the future.

“The Service recognizes that the Port has a responsibility to manage public resources for economic development and other legitimate objectives. But the Port must also mitigate and manage associated risks and potential effects to public resources that are not their own,” he wrote. “Port operations are a preferred, water-dependent use of state-owned aquatic lands, but such use should not damage coastal and marine habitats that cannot be replaced. Siting determinations must evidence a thorough consideration of these factors. The Corps, Port and other parties with regulatory authority must consider alternatives that would achieve the same or similar economic development objectives. If better, safer, and more compatible uses of the Port’s facilities are not given equal and fair consideration, they should expect that the Service will seek every opportunity to reinforce our stated concerns.”

Besides the issue with crude oil exports, several oyster growers have also expressed their concerns with the deeper draft option. In 1990, when the channel was deepened to 36 feet, Whitcomb Spit near the mouth of the Harbor was largely washed away, and about 200 acres of oyster beds were lost, according to Brady Engvall of Brady’s Oysters.

Scott Brown, a coastal hydraulic engineer for the Corps, said last month he was aware of changes in the spits, and the possible contribution of the channel depth to those changes.

“It’s certainly a factor,” he said. “We know the wave energy is changing.”

Daily World reporter Brionna Friedrich contributed to this story.

The draft reevaluation report, draft supplemental EIS and appendices are available to review on line at http://1.usa.gov/MS6jUw or through Seattle District’s main website: http://www.nws.usace.army.mil by clicking on “Grays Harbor Navigation” under the “Most Requested” column. The Corps is accepting public comments on the draft limited reevaluation report and supplemental EIS through April 8. Comments can be sent via email to: GraysHarborComments@usace.army.mil or through the mail to Josh Jackson, CENWS-PM-CP, PO Box 3755, Seattle, WA 98124-3755.