Ads seek public support to deepen the Columbia as a federal decision nears

Under the original plan, the digging would have started last month.

That was before environmental groups sued and federal biologists changed their opinion about the environmental costs of the $200 million federal plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel.

The Port of Portland has been arguing since 1989 that Portland's viability as a seaport depends on deepening the 100-mile shipping channel from Portland to the Pacific. However, the project is still six environmental hurdles short of fruition.

The first and tallest of these hurdles is a biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether the project would endanger Columbia River salmon. The opinion is due out next month, and the port is revving up the rhetoric once again to win public approval Ñ and public money.

Some of Oregon's most influential people Ñ among them Gov. John Kitzhaber, retired U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield and Portland developer Bob Naito Ñ are involved in the promotion. They're trying to portray the long-delayed project as both vital to Oregon's struggling economy and an improvement rather than a threat for the Columbia River and its fish.

Port officials say about 40,000 jobs in the Portland metropolitan region are directly related to maritime trade.

A new advertisement running on seven radio stations in the Portland area features port Executive Director Bill Wyatt stating, 'The big ships you see coming up and down the Columbia River don't just carry Oregon products. They carry Oregon's future.'

The radio spots will run through mid-May as part of the port's $300,000 advertising campaign to boost the channel project. The port also is running channel-deepening ads in a dozen newspapers throughout Oregon.

The campaign is being directed by Debby Kennedy, who worked with the Seattle-based advertising firm Cole and Weber for 10 years before taking over as the port's public affairs director in August 2000. Portland-based Sasquatch Advertising is providing creative services.

Straight to the point

Katy Brooks, a spokeswoman for the port, said the new ads are much more focused than ads that ran a year ago in local and national publications. Those ads featured far-off subjects such as Chilean kids who eat wheat, even though hardly any wheat is exported from Portland to Chile.

The new ads cut straight to the point because new marketing data show that most Portlanders are all too familiar with the region's economic woes Ñ but not familiar with the channel-deepening project.

Only 44 percent of people polled in Portland General Electric's most recent year-end survey on growth and the economy had heard about channel deepening.

'We want those 44 percent to understand what maritime commerce means to the economy,' Brooks said. 'It's not about the ports; it's about our economy and our jobs.'

The port also is trying to win over its two biggest opponents: environmental groups and downriver fishermen from the Astoria area. A lawsuit filed by those groups two years ago held that the project would destroy 1,000 acres of wetlands and 3,600 acres of river bottom.

Port leaders have staged a series of meetings in the Astoria area to try to dampen the resistance. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for planning and completing the project, has added six environmental restoration measures to the dredging plan.

The port already has started lobbying for $11.5 million in federal funds to get the environmental work rolling.

All 14 members of Oregon's and Washington's congressional delegations support the project. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, has listed the Columbia River as one of her top priorities.

But the port will have to wade through a lot of public process before the digging starts. Both Oregon and Washington would need to give water quality and coastal management permits, and Washington has an additional permit required by its Department of Ecology.

At the federal level, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would have to give the plan the green light, and the Corps of Engineers will have to re-crunch its numbers and prepare an updated economic assessment.

The Corps' numbers need updating because fewer big ships are coming up the Columbia than before. Two of the port's biggest customers Ñ Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp. and Seoul, Korea-based Hanjin Shipping Ñ have pulled out of Portland over the past year.

Port officials say those losses are partly because of the shipping channel being too shallow for the newest cargo ships.

Critics question that assessment. North Portland citizen activist Mikey Jones, a longtime opponent of the port, believes that Portland will never compete with major West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Oakland Ñ and shouldn't try.

'The port's like a guy who's 5 feet tall, who's trying to play in the NBA,' Jones said. 'They might want to try a new plan.'

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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