State says spoils from marina dredging contained toxinsThe Port of Astoria has been fined $3,600 by the Oregon Division of State Lands, which claims the port put harmful materials into the Columbia River estuary and didn't follow the rules as it dredged the slips in the Astoria marina this spring.

But the port sent an answer back, which says that it didn't violate the conditions of its permit, and that in addition, the state should be responsible for the dredged materials.

In the last few days of February and the first two weeks of March, the port conducted maintenance dredging of its slips. It does this every winter, to allow cruise ships and other boats into the marina. But this year, because the sands in the slips were found to be contaminated with DDT - not very much DDT, but enough to put the sands over the in-water limit - the port couldn't return the dredged sediments to the flow lane of the Columbia River as it usually does.

Instead, the port got permits to build weirs on the west edge of Pier 3 and put the sediments there, discharging the leftover water into Youngs Bay once the sand settled. This was an option because the allowable amounts of DDT on land are much higher than they are on water.

But after the dredging occurred, DSL and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the port notices of noncompliance, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued the agency a cease-and-desist order, all claiming that the port had mishandled the dredged sediments.

"As part of that permit, they have conditions related to what they can do with the dredge material," said Lori Warner-Dickason, the western region manager for DSL's removal fill program. "They violated those conditions in their permit."

In early May, DSL issued the port a notice of violation and a fine of $3,600, along with a preliminary order suspending the port's permit. Last week, the port responded with a request for a contested case hearing, denying DSL's claims.

The DSL notice said that the port violated four conditions of its permits, one of which stated that the port couldn't put harmful materials into state waters.

"They dredged a bunch of material, and they deposited it in their dredge disposal site," said Warner-Dickason. "This was all wet, turbid material behind these berms that were built. That material was discharging back into the estuary ... We believe that material had deleterious material in it."

Warner-Dickason said the concerns stemmed from a DEQ report that found more than the allowable amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury in the discharge.

Port Executive Director Peter Gearin said that he hasn't seen the evidence that these sediments were contaminated with the chemicals.

"We have asked for the basis under which they made that claim," Gearin said. "At the moment, they have been unable to back that up."

DSL's notice also stated that the port did not have permission from the state to work beyond the normal in-water work period; the port dredged until mid-March, and the regular dredge season ends Feb. 28. The port had received an extension from the Corps, a federal agency, but needed the state's approval as well.

The corps' permit "does not give them permission from the state of Oregon, and their permit clearly states that," Warner-Dickason said. "It's their responsibility for getting that (state permit)."

Gearin said that the extension issue will be answered by the port's legal counsel at the hearing.

The third violation cited by DSL stated that the port didn't allow the dredged sands to settle in the weir before releasing the water back into Youngs Bay.

"The condition says that wastewater shall be provided adequate settling time," Warner-Dickason said. "We have photos that show incredible amounts of turbidity re-entering the estuary from their settling ponds."

Gearin said that even if the discharge was allowed to sit for eight hours, the super-fine sediments wouldn't settle. There were no predetermined requirements on how clear the water had to be, he said.

"None of that was determined, things were moving too fast at that point," Gearin said, referring to the time constraints the port was under to get the permits in order. "We were putting so much pressure on everybody to process the application, not even the regulatory agencies were thinking through (all the issues) thoroughly."

Gearin said that the issue of turbidity and settling time will be one that the port will clear up before the next dredging season.

DSL's final complaint in the notice is that the port trespassed on state lands. While it had a permit to dredge, it didn't have a permit from DSL to put the sediments in the settling ponds, which are on state lands.

"Everybody knew that they needed a lease," Warner-Dickason said. "Our permit says you have to have permission from the property owner before you trespass.

"I don't know, do the people of Oregon want this material on their land?"

The port had approached Steve Purchase, who manages state lands with DSL as an assistant director of field operations, and asked him if it was OK to put the sediments on DSL property, Gearin said. Purchase asked if the sediments were clean, Gearin said they were, and Purchase gave a verbal OK, Gearin said.

"Technically we should have leased the land from DSL to put the dirt on it, and we didn't do that," he said, again citing time constraints. He said that it appears that someone overreacted to concerns that the material was contaminated, which wasn't the case.

The port's answer to DSL's notice also made a claim of its own. The port said that it didn't trespass on state lands because it was taking dredge materials, which are owned by the state, and moving them from one state-owned property (submerged lands) to another (Pier 3). If the sediments in the slips' submerged lands were contaminated, that was the state's responsibility, the port said.

The port is saying "You just deposited contaminated sediments on our space, please remove it," Gearin said.

The port also received a notice of noncompliance from the Corps. The notice said that the port was supposed to monitor the turbidity and test and analyze the discharged material for contaminants before it released anything into the estuary, but that the port didn't do this.

In two April letters to the Corps and to Gearin, a program manager with the water quality division of DEQ said that the violations appeared to be intentional, since Gearin was told of the requirements beforehand.

Gearin did not comment on the discharge testing issue.

The Corps has not yet decided what course of action to pursue, said Karen Nelson, an environmental protection specialist with the Corps.

"We are taking the matter seriously, we're meeting with the port, and an investigation is ongoing," Nelson said. She said that hopefully the issue will be resolved by the next in-water work window in November.

This issue is a long-term problem, Gearin said. The port needs to dredge every year to allow boats to enter the marina, but the DDT contamination from agricultural operations upriver will probably not go away.

The agencies need to work together to figure out what to do with the DDT-containing sediments, he said. Even if the port is allowed to dispose of sediments in the settling ponds next year, that will fill up the ponds. The port will still have to continue dredging and disposing of the spoils somewhere.

"Effectively, we've got a year and 5 months to resolve that issue," Gearin said.

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