ASTORIA - They say they're against it because it will take away their fishing grounds, or dump sand on the crab they catch; because it will fill in their favorite place to anchor a day sailor; because it's a taxpayer subsidy to large corporations; because they just don't trust the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The majority of the 30 people who gave testimony Monday night to Washington and Oregon environmental regulators evaluating the Corps' plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel were against the project.

Scores more attended the hearing at the Columbia River Maritime Museum Kern Room.

A handful of port executives and shipping interests testified that the project was necessary to keep the region's ports competitive and accommodate modern, deeper-draft vessels. They said thousands of jobs and environmental safety depended on a deeper channel.

The state regulators are evaluating the project's consistency with federal, state and local laws governing the coastal zone - which extends to the western edge of Puget Island. They also must certify that the project meets the states' water quality standards. The Corps needs the go-ahead from the states to move forward with the deepening project.

Salmon and crab fishers testified that the project would have a negative impact on their livelihoods and safety.

Jon Westerholm, a gillnetter representing the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union, said fishermen cannot accept the project as long as it contains dumping at Lois Island Embayment, Rice Island, in the Miller Island-Pillar Rock area or on Dungeness crab beds at the mouth of the river.

Lois Island and Miller-Pillar are places where the Corps proposes to create ecosystem restoration features using materials dredged during construction of a 43-foot channel.

"Our salmon, sturgeon and crab ... and natural environment deserves better and more consideration than we're getting so far," Westerholm said.

Oliver Waldman, the new executive director of Salmon for All, put the economic detriment channel deepening will cause for lower river fishers in stark terms. "If you fill in Miller Pillar, it will take away the livelihood of 17 fishermen and 17 fishing families," he said.

Dale Beasley, the commissioner of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman's Association, said he'd be submitting lengthy written comments to the state agencies, but wanted to highlight two points that "have needed resolution for way too long.

"Both mitigation and protection of historic navigation routes are required under the law," he said. "Until both these issues are successfully resolved, the states have no legal choice but to deny consistency. There is more at stake than (Endangered Species Act) salmon."

Those in favor of the project said reviews conducted by federal fish and wildlife experts found that it would not harm the environment. They said a deeper channel may, in fact, protect it.

Warren Banks, executive director of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, said a deeper channel would attract newer, safer ships. Accommodating modern, deeper-draft vessels would protect the Columbia River from an environmental disaster, such as the one avoided recently when Bar Pilots kept an underpowered tanker from running aground while entering the river in rough weather.

Other proponents noted the large number of jobs in the region - one said 40,000 - dependent on maritime commerce. They said trade with Asia and other Pacific Rim markets is critical to the economies of Oregon and Washington, the sixth- and first-most trade dependent states in the nation, respectively.

A few representatives of recreational boating associations gave testimony, mostly focusing on the loss of a "unique," protected anchorage on the Washington side of the river to dredged material disposal from the project.

Doug Walker, president of the Columbia River Yachting Association, said filling Martin Island embayment would be a "great loss" to hundreds of boaters who regularly take shelter from wind, weather and river currents there.

Many gave testimony concerning the confusion about ocean disposal of dredged materials from construction or maintenance of the 43-foot channel.

Based on conversations the state regulators had with the Corps last week, no ocean disposal is planned as part of the channel deepening project. But if there was documentation to back that up, many of those giving testimony didn't have access to it.

This confusion highlighted a broader issue facing the states' environmental review. The Corps is still finishing work on its final environmental impact statement and feasibility report for the project. That final document is due out early this year. Many who testified were concerned that the state agencies had to hit a "moving target," as they evaluated the Corps' project for its water quality and coastal zone compliance.

Peter Huhtala, the executive director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, said he objected to the proceedings as "outrageously improper," adding that the Corps' applications have "serious inconsistencies." He said the Corps should figure out what its actual project is and start the permitting process over again.

The state environmental regulators will accept written comments on the Corps' application until 5 p.m. Jan. 15.

Comments on the Oregon water-quality application should be sent to Russell Harding, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, 811 S.W. 6th Ave., Portland, OR, 97204, or by e-mail to harding.russell@deq.state.or.us

Comments on the Oregon coastal zone certification should be sent to Christine Valentine, Department of Land Conservation and Development, 635 Capitol St., N.E., Suite 150, Salem, OR, 97301, or by e-mail to Christine.Valentine@state.or.us

Comments on the Washington water-quality application and coastal zone certification should be sent to Loree Randall, Department of Ecology, P.O. Box 47600, Olympia, Wash., or by e-mail to lora461@ecy.wa.gov

Another hearing is scheduled 7:30 p.m. today in Portland at the State Office Building, room 140, 800 N.E. Oregon St.

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