Environmentalists Challenge Gravel Mining

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service approved a plan to mine gravel from the lower Chetco River despite admitting that the mining will damage the river's juvenile Coho salmon, an environmental group claims in Federal Court.
     Northwest Environmental Defense Center says the agency noted that the project would increase the river's width-depth ratio, erode its banks, straighten its curves and increase sediment in the river.
     But without analyzing the impact these changes would have on the river's dwindling Coho population, the agency concluded that the project would not destroy or harm the fish's critical habitat, according to the complaint.
     Southern Oregon's upper Chetco River was declared wild and scenic in 1988. The lower portion of the river is home to the last 0.1 percent of threatened Coho salmon of the river's historically abundant population, the lawsuit states. The lower Chetco also provides drinking water to Brookings, Ore.
     In July 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers formed two federal advisory groups tasked with "developing permits for commercial gravel mining activities in various watersheds throughout Oregon," the lawsuit states.
     Principally focused on the Chetco River, the Corps allegedly directed the groups to compile a review that would "serve as a model for evaluating other river systems."
     The Corps allegedly said the Umpqua River, Rogue River, Tillamook River and Coquille River systems would be the next watersheds studied for gravel mining.
     The two groups were heavily populated with mining industry representatives, in violation of federal law, which requires such groups to be "fairly balanced" and "free of members with inappropriate special interests," according to the complaint.
     After stacking the ranks of its advisory committees with commercially minded members, the Corps largely gutted the environmental provisions of the groups' recommendations from its plan, the plaintiff claims.
     The Corps issued three plans based on the recommendations, each more watered down than the last, the environmental group claims. The Corps also illegally kept the advisory committee meetings and documents secret, according to the complaint.
     The Corps issued its final notice in July, proposing a plan that allowed "significantly more material" to be extracted than was originally considered, Environmental Defense claims.
     The Endangered Species Act required the Corps to send its plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for evaluation, since the river provides critical habitat for three threatened fish species: Coho salmon, southern eulachon and green sturgeon.
     According to the lawsuit, the population of Coho salmon in the Chetco River is between 50 and 100 fish, a number the NMFS said creates a "negative feedback loop that accelerates a population toward extinction" because of "density-dependent factors such as failure to find mates."
     Despite noting that "the project will adversely affect the cover/shelter, food, water quality, safe passage and water temperature" requirements of Coho salmon, the NMFS ultimately approved the mining project, the plaintiff claims.
     The agency did not mention or discuss the recommendations of the advisory groups - a notable omission given its role as a member of one of the groups and its earlier endorsement of the recommendations, Environmental Defense claims.
     The group demands a declaration that the Corps violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, and that the Service violated the Endangered Species Act. It also wants an injunction barring gravel mining until its claims have been resolved.
     Environmental Defense is represented by Andrew Hawley of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Allison LaPlante and Tom Buchele with Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center.