President Bush, who visits Portland Friday, may promise $15 million to start the Columbia River dredging project.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested $15 million in federal funding to keep the project on schedule, but only $3 million has been approved by Congress in a House appropriations bill.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who will travel with Bush Friday, told The Oregonian that White House budget director Joshua Bolten has assured him that the project would be fully funded in the coming fiscal year.

"It is my hope that he will announce the funding for the Columbia channel deepening," Smith said. "I think the president sees this as an issue that unites urban and rural, unites business and labor, and unites Republican and Democrat."

Ken Lisaius, a White House spokes-man, would neither confirm nor deny Bush's plans for the shipping channel. Bush is scheduled to arrive at Portland Airport on Air Force One, then speak

at the Port of Portland's Rivergate

Industrial Park Terminal 6 at about 11:15 a.m. before traveling on to a second speech at Southridge High School in Beaverton.

The $148.4 million project will deepen the river by 3 feet to an average of 43 feet to allow larger ships passage from the ocean to the Port of Portland, and allow vessels to carry more cargo back to the sea.

The port has lost merchant carriers over the years after complaints the river was too shallow for newer ships. Hyundai Merchant Marine announced in July it was ending service to Portland, leaving the port with only two shipping companies that handle container cargo - freight and manufactured products packed in 20-, 40- and 45-foot containers.

Corps engineers plan to start the project with environmental restoration and protection work before dredging the river in summer 2005.

Northwest lawmakers have given broad bipartisan support to the Columbia project since planning began in the late 1990s.

Environmentalists and others, however, claim dredging would damage habitat for endangered fish. Opponents of the project say deepening the channel will stir up toxic contaminants.

The Corps' charter calls for the least-cost solution for dumping dredge spoils, although environmental concerns must be met. Ocean crab fishers and river salmon fishermen fear dumping extra sand in the ocean or salmon spawning grounds in the river will hurt the fisheries and North Coast livelihoods. Some critics add that beneficial uses of dredge spoils, for example to stop beach erosion in vulnerable areas, have not been adequately researched.

In 2002, a panel of experts hired by the Corps raised questions about claims of economic benefits after an investigation by The Oregonian showed how dollar figures appeared top be exaggerated.

But officials with the Port of Portland and five other ports on the Lower Columbia have been unanimous in their support, saying they need the deeper channel to compete with ports in Los Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

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