Oral arguments will be presented to a federal court on Feb.
2 regarding litigation over dredging operations on the lower Snake River in
U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled in January 2015 that
dredging of the Snake River could proceed as planned for the sake of navigation
safety and economy. The court found that the benefits of dredging outweigh
alleged harms that might result from disturbances to the river corridor. But
the case proceeds, with the plaintiffs arguing that the dredging program, and
the processes leading to it, violate federal laws.
A motion for summary judgement was filed last May in
Robart’s Western Washington District Court even though dredging work on the
river was already completed. The plaintiffs include Idaho Rivers United, the
Washington Wildlife Federation, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s
Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, the Sierra Club, Friends
of the Clearwater and the Nez Perce Tribes. The plaintiffs contended that
“after nine years of evaluation, the Corps has produced an (environmental
impact statement and records of decision) that allow it to dredge immediately
and into the foreseeable future, while again pushing an evaluation of
alternatives into the future.”
The National Environmental Policy Act, they say, requires
the Corps to “objectively and rigorously explore a reasonable range of
alternatives, to take a hard look at the effects of actions and the context in
which they occur and to evaluate costs and benefits of its actions and
The motion asserts that the Corps violated NEPA by failing
to consider adequate alternatives to dredging, by failing to take a hard look
at impacts to Pacific lamprey and by failing to consider impacts from climate
change on the Snake River drainage.
“The heart of the problem is that the Corps concluded that
dredging was the only measure to address accumulated sediment but did not list,
let alone consider, any other sediment measure or combination of measures as an
alternative for its 2015 action. Dredging is aimed at maintaining a 14-foot
navigation channel, and the action agencies maintain dredging is necessary
every three-to-five years at known problem sites.
The plaintiffs maintain that by the Corps’ own admission,
“it is entirely predictable that the Corps will find itself faced with at least
one self-created ‘immediate need’ to address accumulated sediment in the next
three-to-five years because the agency is not evaluating other long-term
alternatives to dredging.
Another major claim in the motion is that the Corps
presented an incomplete and misleading picture of the costs and benefits of
continued dredging maintenance of the navigation channel.
“This requirement is especially important where, as here,
economic benefits are the sole justification for the project and the agency’s
analysis of alternatives,” the motion states
“While the Corps asserts that it had no obligation to
provide an economic analysis, it provides a short and oversimplified
calculation to rationalize its continued channel maintenance that dramatically
overstates the benefits of maintaining the channel and understates the costs,”
The plaintiffs say that the Corps used a 2002 estimate to
conclude that shipping by barge results in a cost savings over $8.45 per ton
over truck or rail transportation, and that figure was multiplied by about 3
million tons shipped annually on the lower Snake River. The Corps estimated the
resulting economic benefit of maintaining the channel is about $25 million per
year, compared to annual channel maintenance costs that average $1 million to
$5 million a year.
The plaintiffs maintain that the costs of shipping by rail
or truck were overestimated by the Corps, that the costs of maintaining the
navigation lane are underestimated, and that the 2002 economic analysis is
outdated and does not measure up to NEPA requirements.
The plaintiffs also contend that the economic analysis
applied to freight shipping on the entire lower Snake River corridor, rather
than to the limited, uppermost portion of Lower Granite Reservoir where most
“That is, nearly all of the costs of dredging are due to
maintaining the part of the river farthest inland, reached by the fewest
vessels, resulting in a marked overstatement of benefits,” the motion states.
The plaintiffs have said they expect the Corps and its
supporters will assert that the legal challenge is moot because the Corps has
already completed its 2015 “immediate need” dredging operations this year. But
they say the court should dismiss that argument, because what is being
challenged is an “indefinite framework” to maintain the Lower Snake River
“This program will, by definition, be used repeatedly and
regularly to justify the Corps’ actions for years to come,” the motion for
summary judgement states.
The Corps has filed documents in the court saying the
complaint and preliminary injunction motion that was subsequently rejected
wrongly accuse the federal agency of ignoring alternatives to dredging.
The Corps is obliged by congressional mandate to maintain at
desired depths and widths the navigation channel created to facilitate
commercial barge and ship traffic up the Columbia and Snake rivers from the
Pacific Ocean to the Idaho-Washington border at Lewiston and Clarkston.
“With its purpose and need established, the Corps turned to
its Programmatic Sediment Management Plan to identify reasonable alternatives
for the Current Immediate Need Action. The plan identifies two management
options when an immediate need action is triggered for navigation. The first is
changes in reservoir operations. But those measures are only temporary –
sediment continues to accumulate and the Corps can only raise the reservoir so
high given design and structural limitations.
“Thus, the second option for a navigational immediate need
action is to remove the impairing sediment,” the federal filing says.
-- CBB, Jan. 9, 2015, “Judge Rejects Preliminary Injunction
To Halt ‘Immediate Needs’ Lower Snake Dredging” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432900.aspx
-- CBB, Jan. 9, 2015, “Six Week Lower Snake Dredging Starts
Next Week, First Time Since 2006; Sediment To Be Used For Salmon Habitat” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432899.aspx
-- CBB, Dec. 31, 2014, “Lower Snake Dredging Opponents: Loss
Of Revenues Does Not Out Weigh Irreparable Environmental Injury” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432856.aspx
-- CBB, Dec. 19, 2014, “Will Lower Snake Dredging Harm
Lamprey? In Court Filings Feds, Ports Say Such Claims ‘Speculative’ ” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432804.aspx
-- CBB, Dec. 5, 2014, “Groups File To Halt Lower Snake
Dredging; Inland Ports Counter, ‘Risk Serious Accident Could Occur' ” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432728.aspx
-- CBB, Nov. 21, 2014, “Long-Term Sediment Management Plan
For Lower Snake River Approved; Maintenance Dredging Set” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432661.aspx
-- CBB, April 8, 2011, “Lack Of Dredging Behind Lower
Granite Forces Balancing Act For Fish, Navigation, Flood Control,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/407318.aspx
-- CBB, Jan. 25, 2013, “Information Meeting In Lewiston
Highlights Views On Draft Lower Snake Sediment Management Plan” http://www.cbbulletin.com/424720.aspx