In 2019, the Port of Astoria began charging $300 to ocean-going vessels headed up the Columbia River. The port argues they offer a service, since they have the deepest berth for ships passing through during an emergency. In a recent lawsuit, federal courts ruled against the port since only a few ships have ever used the emergency service in the past 20 years. Ethan Myers, a reporter for The Astorian, joins us to share details of the case and what this means for the future of the port.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: Three years ago, the Port of Astoria began charging $300 to each large ocean-going vessel headed up the Columbia River. Shipment companies took the port to court saying the fee was unconstitutional, and a few weeks ago a federal judge agreed. Ethan Myers has been writing about this for The Astorian and joins us with more. Can you explain what the port was charging?
Ethan Myers: So the port of Astoria, which sits just on the mouth of the Columbia River, enacted this $300 harbor fee in 2019. This was charged to ocean-going vessels which were 250 ft or longer, that were passing up the Columbia and also passed by the port. Their justification for this fee was that the port is able to offer a spot for emergency services or any necessary repair work to the ships because they have a deep water berth at Pier 1. And a deep-water berth means that they can dock these large ocean-going vessels. The next nearest deep-water berth is in Longview, Washington, which is around 150 miles away. Essentially the port was seeing this as a reimbursement for the maintenance that is required to have these services in place.
Miller: Just to be clear, this wasn’t a fee for ships that were stopping at the ports or at that pier, but just simply passing through?
Myers: Correct, just passing by the port. A big part of the case was the court found that about 30,000 to 40,000 ships passed by over the last two decades and the port estimated that only a handful actually used the pier as an emergency berth.
Miller: But the port was saying, “it’s possible you will need our emergency help and we’re going to charge you money as you pass by. That way, we can spend that money to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to provide that help in case you need it?”
Myers: Yes, that’s correct.
Miller: Is this something that other ports do?
Myers: I’m not an expert on ports, but I think based on the reaction of the Shipping Association as well as other ports in the area, several ports actually along the Columbia River, it doesn’t seem to be a fairly routine fee. The port’s lawyers had cited several other ports that charge similar fees at the time. I think Vancouver, British Columbia was the only other port on the west coast to have a harbor maintenance fee. The port in Los Angeles had also enacted a harbor maintenance fee before, but that was only done temporarily to pay for infrastructure projects. So this is not a routine fee, as it seems.
Miller: You gave us a short version, but can you give us the non-lawyer’s version of the argument put forward by the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association in court when they were fighting this fee?
Myers: So they felt like this fee was a violation of the tonnage clause in the constitution, which restricts agencies from imposing charges on ships just for being in or trading at a port. The association questioned the emergency services that were actually capable on the pier. They also argued that any emergency services that ships would need in case of a repair emergency would actually come from other agencies. Firefighting that needed to be done would be done by the Astoria Fire Department. Any policing would need to be done by the Astoria Police Department. They were saying that the ports shouldn’t be able to charge this fee because it actually doesn’t provide those services that it says it does.
Miller: And it seems like the federal judge in this case agreed. What did U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon say?
Myers: Correct. A federal court ruled that the fee was in violation of this tonnage clause. They found that the fee isn’t really a fee on these ships using the pier because it’s so rarely used by these vessels, a handful over the course of two decades. And the work to maintain the emergency service is essentially maintaining and dredging the pier. Dredging for those who don’t know is digging and cleaning out the dirt, mud, or whatever is at the bottom of the floor of the Columbia River. And that’s a very expensive undertaking that the port has to do on a regular basis to keep the water deep enough. But the court did not see that as anything other than just maintaining their port. They also found that just because the pier is necessary for emergency services to take place doesn’t mean that it itself is an emergency service. So if the port isn’t providing a service then that fee can’t be justified.
Miller: You note that the port has been continuing to charge this harbor fee throughout the course of the lawsuit, even if a lot of the ships haven’t been paying. But is the port going to have to pay back some of the money that it did collect?
Myers: It will. They’re either going to have to appeal, which funny enough, was going to be discussed at Tuesday’s Port of Astoria commission meeting, but we had a citywide power outage, so that was not discussed. But yes, they can appeal or work to pay these funds back that were collected through the harbor fee. The executive director estimated only about $200,000 over a two-year period was actually collected from these ships, which was a fraction of what the total amount would have been had every ship paid.
Miller: Do you have a sense if the port can afford this right now and can pay the money back?
Myers: You know, there was talk originally that they had kept it in a protected account so they could just give it all back. I think that they have done that to a certain extent. The port has struggled in the past. They were hit very hard by the pandemic. A big part of the port’s funding comes from cruise ships, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, and they lost their logging industry a few years ago, as well. I’m not entirely sure if they are going to be able to pay it, but I think that they have been keeping the money to pay back just in case this happened.
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