When Bill Wyatt took over as director of the Port of Portland, just weeks after the 9-11 disaster, he spent a lot of time talking about airplanes and airports. Last week, he spent a lot of time talking about ships and rivers. That's because on Sunday, March 3, The Oregonian launched a three-part series investigating the Port's plans to dredge the Columbia River. The series poked holes in the Port's case for deepening the current shipping channel from 40 feet to 43 feet to allow bigger ships to come to Portland. But it may have left readers with the impression that channel deepening is done deal. In fact, during a Feb. 4 meeting in Astoria, Wyatt made it clear that a key scientific study on the effects of river dredging won't be ready until later this month. A few days later, during an interview with WW editor Mark Zusman and business writer Nigel Jaquiss, he made the same points and stressed that the issue will almost certainly be decided in federal court. Here are excerpts of that interview.

Willamette Week: Channel-deepening has been kicking around for years. What happens if this project doesn't happen for five years? What's Plan B?

Five years is forever. If it doesn't happen within five years, I don't think it will happen. In fact, if we don't know where we're headed in the next year, I don't think it will happen.

Why is that?

We're at a stage of the process where we have this important biological opinion coming in March that's the scientific equivalent of a green, yellow or red light. If it's a red light, it's the end, as far as I'm concerned. If it's a green light, I think it's an indication that the science behind the project is solid from the perspective of those who had to give it the legal review. If that's the case, I'm of the opinion that we can succeed in the litigation that will follow.

And if it's yellow?

If it's a yellow light, it depends a little on what additional things we have to do. We'll just have to see. But if we get a yellow or a red light, then I think it's going to be a very hard road.

So, let's assume you get the red light; what exactly is the consequence? What ships can't come here? What cargo won't get here?

I think it will be slow to unfold. It won't happen the next morning, but eventually it will be very difficult to maintain a going container business with a 40-foot channel. Container ships globally are getting bigger, and if we want that service, Portland is a middle stop more often than not on their way from Oakland to Seattle or vice versa. We can't call the steamship companies and say, "Send us a smaller boat."

So, what would we lose?

Primarily exports, and they tend to be lower-value agricultural products: frozen berries, alfalfa cubes that go to Japan. So when you ask about Plan B, the only real Plan B is to figure out how to get those products to other ports--Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland--in a way that is still somewhat competitive. It's going to be very difficult for us to do.

Why can't you just get that grain trucked or railed to Astoria, where the water is already deep enough?

You're talking to an Astoria boy here, so keep in mind I've looked at this all my life. There was always the notion we should have a "super-port" in Astoria. Why dig the river all the way to Portland? The problem is, Astoria was built on a hill. There's no functioning railroad to Astoria. A modern marine terminal for grain requires a minimum of 150 acres.

Our facility at T5 packs out about 10 percent of the grain in Columbia River. To move that [to Astoria], you'd have to have truck, rail and barge. Rail is tough in Astoria. The place the farthest down the river I've heard talked about is Point Westward. They're doing whatever they can to improve the rail service.

Are other ports in the country faced with (A) the prospect of channel deepening and (B) the environmental concerns?

Yes and no. One of the things I appreciated is that we have something to fight about here. Go down to San Francisco Bay, where it's a wasteland and no one cares. They've talked about filling it in for another runway. Can you imagine even having a conversation like that here? I can't. There are deepening projects all over the country of different size and stride. I don't think any of them have requirements of environmental sensitivity [like those] that surround this one.

But you face a situation where your scientists say, "green light," and the Astorians come up with scientists that say, "red light," and then it becomes a legal and political discussion, rather than a scientific discussion.

I think it is already more of a political discussion. I'm quite confident that the science is pretty good. The process that we went through to get sustainable ecosystems and scientists to peer-review every one of the big questions was pretty thorough, so I am comfortable with that. In Astoria, I didn't hear anyone I didn't consider to be very sincere and heartfelt. They were able for one of the first times to unload a little bit. If you ask the political and community leaders in Astoria about the channel project, one thing you'll hear them say is, "We don't get anything out of this. Portland gets containers and grain and 40,000 jobs, and we don't get much."

Are they right?

They're absolutely right about that. There aren't direct benefits. We made a mistake by not attending to that, though Astoria isn't that different from other small communities whose fortunes have changed drastically. When I left Astoria in 1964, the Bumblebee cannery had almost 2,000 employees. The cannery doesn't even exist anymore. People are struggling with that.

You've hung your hat on channel deepening. If you get that red light, would it cost you your job?

I don't think so. But I'm not making guarantees. I think it's important for Portland and the region, and I think I'm obligated to say so. I'm also obligated to listen to people who don't think so, and I think that's a very important part of my role at the port.