Ships at Pier 1

Log and cruise ships mesh on Pier 1 at the Port of Astoria. 

The Port of Astoria Commission will likely decide Tuesday whether to charge oceangoing commercial ships over 250 feet passing along the Columbia River a $300 fee to help maintain Pier 1.

“Pier 1 provides the only available critical emergency berth for distressed vessels at the mouth of the Columbia River, and serves as a land-based platform for providing emergency services including shipboard firefighting,” a resolution on the fee states.

Pier 1 hosts vessels ordered in for repairs.The Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Leon Oetker, for example, was ordered into the Port in November for repairs to its radar and steering.

The Port sees the harbor use fee as a way to capture badly needed revenue and maintain its main cash-generating piece of infrastructure.

Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, said the $300 fee is based on the $482,000 the agency spent over the last year in staff and dredging to maintain Pier 1.

The Port estimates an average of 1,500 oceangoing commercial ships come into the river each year. The fee, which would take effect in June, would not apply to government vessels, tugboats or pleasure craft.

“We’re so firm in our authority and the need to do this that we do not anticipate a negative response or legal challenge,” Knight said.

The proposed fee has faced criticism from the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association, which has cautioned the Port against any action that would raise costs.

Kate Mickelson, the group’s executive director, has cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a property tax imposed on oil tankers by Valdez, Alaska, because the Constitution bars states from enacting tonnage fees without an act of Congress.

But Michael Haglund, a maritime attorney hired by the Port to review the legality of the harbor use fee, said the agency has broad authority to charge fees within its jurisdiction, which extends to the Washington state side of the Columbia River.

The Port has referenced a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Alabama State Docks Commission could charge vessels entering the harbor in Mobile a policing fee.

“As long as (the fee) applies to everybody, and everybody is benefitting from a pier that is there for emergencies whenever one of these big ships needs it, it’s legitimate,” Haglund said at a recent Port meeting.

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Daily Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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