A federal agency holds the key to unlocking a Port of Morrow project set to begin next month.

But without a work permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the port crews can’t begin. That permit could be stalled until early March, about a week before the window of opportunity will close.

“That’s not good enough,” said Ron McKinnis, the port’s engineer, Wednesday to the Port of Morrow Commission.

The holdup is not with the Corps of Engineers, he said, but with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has to prepare a  biological opinion about the project. It is but one state and federal agency that must sign off on the permit before port workers may begin their in-water work. Others already have given the project their blessing.

So far, NMFS officials have indicated they’ll OK?the permit by March 5. The port began the permit application process last spring in advance of the three-month closure of some Columbia River locks. The closure is set to start Dec. 10, and the port wants to begin immediately improving the container barge dock at Terminal 3. The project involves digging into the bank about 50 feet to allow workers to load and unload larger barges.

McKinnis said the $1.7 million project involves modifying the crane support system to handle the barges up to 275 feet long. It also includes buying a new container handler and six “super chassis” container trailers that can haul heavier containers.

Officials of the Corps of Engineers have been pushing the folks at NMFS to speed their approval, McKinnis said.

“This makes me a little nervous,” said Marv Padberg, commission president.

General Manager Gary Neal agreed.

“The work needs to be done during the closure,” he said.

In other business Wednesday, McKinnis reported that Tapani Underground Inc. of Battle Ground, Wash., the port’s contractor for the new container rail yard, is on site.

“Their schedule is to be moving dirt by Monday,” he said.

The contractor bid $2.83 million for adding three railroad sidings totaling about 4.4 miles just north of the Union Pacific main line. The site is between Highway 730 and Oregon Hay, which is along East Columbia Avenue.

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