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Earth Day marked by environmental disputes

Even land-use watchdogs fighting among themselves

Friday was Earth Day 2011, but local environmentalists are far from happy.

The Audubon Society of Portland is fighting two major battles for protection of natural land, species and public process in the Portland area.

In one of the initiatives, Audubon, along with Portland nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, on Friday filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt a proposed dredging project in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site near the mouth of the Willamette River.

The lawsuit names the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service, which have approved plans to remove about 75,000 cubic yards of contaminated dredge materials from Portland Harbor.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is currently deciding whether to allow dumping the material on Hayden Island, despite opposition from nearby residents.

The marine fishery service determined that the dredging project is likely to adversely affect species of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but claimed that the effects on fish and their habitat will be minor.

Bob Sallinger, Audubon's conservation director, says the total adverse impacts of all of their projects since 2007 are not being considered.

'These fish could be on their way to extinction,' he says, 'and the agency which is supposedly protecting them would never know.'

The lawsuit asks the federal court to halt the proposed dredging at Post Office Bar until the fishery service properly analyzes all impacts to salmon and their habitat, as well as assesses implementation of its 2008 strategy for avoiding violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Especially on Earth Day, Sallinger says, 'we need to look at how we're treating the environment in our own backyard. We want to make sure that salmon and steelhead will still live in the Willamette River when our children and grandchildren celebrate future Earth Days.'

Changes to the process

In its second major fight, Audubon is lobbying the Oregon Legislature against passage of Senate Bill 766, which just passed out of the Senate's economic development committee. Gov. John Kitzhaber initially introduced the bill in February and it was recently amended, but it's still 'one of the worst bills we've seen in decades,' Sallinger says.

As written by Sen. Roger Beyer (R-Mollala), the bill 'authorizes designation of regionally significant industrial areas,' 'allows for expedited permitting of industrial uses in regionally significant industrial areas,' and establishes an Economic Recovery Review Council that may 'perform expedited site reviews for proposed industrial development projects that have state significance.'

It also establishes a council fund that 'continuously appropriates moneys … for purposes of performing expedited site reviews.'

In essence, Sallinger says, the bill would do two things: functionally preclude new environmental regulations on those designated lands by making the process too onerous; and change the public process for permitting projects.

Public hearings would no longer be allowed, and notice of projects would be limited to the property owners within 100 feet of the area. The timeline for the projects would be expedited, and the appeals process would bypass the Land Use Board of Appeals and go directly to the State Court of Appeals, with causes for appeal limited to narrow legal arguments.

'That's very different than the community going to City Council and saying 'We're very concerned about this process,'' Sallinger says. 'Most projects go through without any opposition in this state. This (bill) goes after the controversial ones and provides them with measures to avoid accountability. … Major disasters in the country are caused by a reduction in regulations and public oversight.'

Kitzhaber and other Democrats, as well as nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon, are backing the bill, saying it will promote economic development.

According to Eric Stachon, 1000 Friends communications director, the bill would protect areas currently zoned for industrial use from being converted to other uses, and streamline permitting new industrial projects 'of statewide significance' within urban growth boundaries.

'We believe that SB 766 will create economic development opportunity while protecting the integrity of UGBs and the viability of agriculture throughout the state,' Stachon adds.

Sallinger vehemently disagrees, calling the bill an 'unacceptable attack on our communities and our environment hidden beneath the guise of creating jobs and protecting urban growth boundaries.'

'I don't think we need to sell out the inner city to protect the farmlands,' he adds.

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