Is genuine objectivity really possible in assessing large maritime projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

Perhaps not, and this is equally true for supporters and opponents. These huge modifications of natural systems are overloaded with emotion and politics.

True believers in Columbia River channel deepening are inalterably and sincerely convinced our region's economic future depends on larger ships being able to reach Portland. It's difficult to imagine any environmental factor changing their minds.

The project's over-my-dead-body foes won't believe any government study, including those released Monday by the federal fisheries and wildlife agencies. Opponents believe the national deck is stacked in favor of industrial development and that no scientific review supervised by Bush appointees will ever undercut a plan backed by so many big shots.

At least on this point, opponents have some facts on their side. With much fanfare, the Corps said three weeks ago it would review the economic justification of 171 projects around the nation. Last Friday, the Corps gave the go-ahead to 113 of them.

Just how thorough an economic review could these projects have received in three weeks? Talk about foregone conclusions - this was a token effort on a scale that should embarrass even the Corps' most ardent defenders.

Each and every Corps maritime project has its tangled web of supporters - industries and shipping firms, engineering companies and building contractors, labor unions. And all these lobby politicians and make campaign contributions.

Considering this, it will be interesting to see if any of the remaining 58 projects under review - including the Columbia channel - are actually chopped from the federal budget. Its past record of collusion with allies in Congress makes it difficult to take seriously anything the Corps says or does on the subject of reform.

All this notwithstanding, it will be unfortunate if Columbia channel skeptics and foes summarily dismiss findings of the new biological opinions by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. Because while complete objectivity may be a slippery goal, the process used to develop these "bi-ops" is a vast improvement over what was previously peddled. It's also telling that the people involved - both inside and outside government - are by all appearances serious and honest.

For them to say that channel deepening won't harm endangered or threatened species is reassuring. And they make a good case that the Corps will really be restoring lost habitat on the Lower Columbia, not just shifting around dredge spoils.

The Corps' own analysis of the project's economics isn't expected before July. There are some people who won't be convinced by anything it says. But the Corps can help its reputation and its prospects in an eventual court challenge by following the example set by the "bi-ops."

Total objectivity is elusive, but it's time for the Corps to at least make the effort.

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