River deep

 

CASE ANALYSIS

Considering stakeholders' concerns proves an essential element to a Columbia River deepening project.

Considering stakeholders' concerns proves an essential element to a Columbia River deepening project

FOR THE PAST 150 YEARS, the engineering activities that helped develop the Columbia River also have contributed significantly to a steep decline in historically abundant anadromous fish runs. Today, environmental groups aim to halt a proposed US$150 million river-deepening project.

As the most hydroelectrically developed river system in the world, the Columbia River, which runs from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, has more than 400 dams that produce 21 million kilowatts of power. In March 2004, Seattle, Wash., USA-based Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Portland, Ore., USA-based Northwest Enviromental Advocates claiming that dredging work to widen the river's navigation channel from 40 to 43 feet (12 to 12.9 meters) would further damage the habitat of highly endangered fish species. The groups seek to halt the project and bring federal laws to regulate channel maintenance operations in the lower part of the river; a court decision is expected in the first half of 2005.

Funding for the project, estimated at $150 million by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, still has not been secured. In addition, there is concern that by the time the project is complete, new generations of container ships that are expected to carry even more containers as payload will need more than 43 feet of depth to navigate; this would negate the entire project.

The project is timely because more trans-ocean shipping companies are opting to use 20- and 40-foot containers that only supertanker-sized ships can haul efficiently, and a supertanker cannot clear a navigation channel that is only 40 feet deep. Also, when loading and unloading are considered, it could take a big container ship a day or more both ways to travel (at low speed) the 100 miles between the shore and the Portland Harbor, the largest port along the river. In the view of the transportation companies, this time might be better spent crossing the ocean at full cruising speed.

Based on river-deepening issues, some transportation companies already have ended their service in Portland or made a decision to halt service in the near future. In less than a month, the port has lost two-thirds of its container handling demands: Seoul, Korea-based Hanjin Shipping is the only major transportation company still sailing big containers along the river.

Project issues also affect local businesses. Portland Harbor handles cargo shipments for an estimated 900 companies; these companies support more than 6,000 jobs. Officials estimate that more than 40,000 jobs are dependent on Columbia River maritime commerce. Many of these jobs are in danger because, as it stands, it is quite unlikely that the deepening project will happen, and Portland Harbor reportedly is operating at a loss.

A contingency plan could keep the port alive and secure these thousands of jobs, but these developments have stakeholders alarmed, says Oliver F. Lehmann, PMP, vice president of professional development for PMI's Troubled Project Specific Interest Group. From the beginning, a clear analysis of the shipping companies' expectations and a detailed economic plan could have prevented some of these issues, Mr. Lehmann says. He stresses that, because the emotions of the interest groups have affected the project's progress, it will be more difficult for the team to find workable solutions.

Mr. Lehmann says that project managers should make fundamental project decisions only after considering all of the major stakeholders' concerns. In this case, environmental groups' views were a key consideration, but it's important for a team to disregard pressure and remain objective, Mr. Lehmann says. In the case of Portland Harbor, he suggests that the project team move forward by analyzing solutions that other towns have used to revive harbor plants and develop new business; Baltimore is a good example.

If you know of a troubled project in which a project manager could have (or did) save the day, share your lessons learned. Contact us at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 2004 | PM NETWORK

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