Delaware River channel-deepening project moves forward

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, June 24, 2008.)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed an agreement with a Pennsylvania agency Monday to dredge and deepen the Delaware River shipping channel.

The deepening effort, if completed, would allow larger ships to move through a channel 5 feet deeper than the current 40-foot depth that spans 102 miles from west of Cape May Point in the Delaware Bay north to the Port of Philadelphia.

“I consider this to be the most important project in the history of the Port of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said.

It is a project that still may not come to fruition, however, thanks to stiff opposition from interests in New Jersey.

Proponents say dredging will drive business growth enough to create 75,000 new jobs. The project has drawn support from U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., as well as business groups and trade unions.

However, a 2002 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found dredging would return only 48 cents for every dollar spent on the project, which is estimated to cost more than $200 million.

The GAO will begin a second study later this year at the request of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

“We lose money on every dollar we invest,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st. “From a taxpayer’s standpoint, it doesn’t make sense. There are environmental questions that have never been addressed.”

New Jersey government could stand in the way of the project coming to fruition. A New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman said the state retains permitting authority.

“As far as we’re concerned, New Jersey has said this project will not move forward without updated environmental and economic studies,” said Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the N.J. Dept. of Environmental Protection.

However, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Khaalid Walls said no New Jersey permit is necessary at this point. The Corps needs only a permit from Delaware and funding to begin the project, which is estimated to take five years once begun, according to Walls, because the agency has already satisfied three tenets of the Clean Water Act that allow it to circumvent New Jersey’s state certification. These tenets are:

– Preparation of an environmental impact statement.

– Delivery of the environmental impact statement to Congress for approval.

– Evaluation of the potential impact on the water supply.

Current Army Corps plans call for nearly all the dredge spoils to be used or disposed of in southwestern New Jersey, primarily in Salem County.

That stands in apparent contradiction to a political agreement struck in May 2007 by Rendell and New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, which says “it is understood that to date Pennsylvania has agreed to accept all spoils material from the Project” and that a tri-state committee would be formed to determine sites for the spoils. The 2007 agreement ended a standoff between the two and moved the project from the bistate Delaware River Port Authority’s jurisdiction to that of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, an independent agency whose board is appointed by Rendell and the Pennsylvania Legislature.

So far, no such committee has been formed, and southern New Jersey locations — most of which are currently used by the Army Corps for routine maintenance dredging — predominate among the proposed disposal sites.

A Feb. 8 letter to the Army Corps from PRPA Chairman John Estey, Rendell’s former chief of staff, indicated the PRPA has no plans to honor Rendell’s agreement with Corzine. It was Estey who signed Monday’s agreement with Assistant Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley Jr., binding the two agencies to jointly fund the deepening project.

“Gov. Rendell made promises that he had no ability to keep,” Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum said. “Gov. Rendell duped the state of New Jersey to go along with this against their own state’s interests.”

A Rendell spokeswoman said the governor plans to follow through on that committee, but there are limits to what was effectively a nonbinding agreement.

“The governor doesn’t dictate to the Corps and the PRPA the terms of the project,” Rendell spokeswoman Kate Philips said. “The governor plans to keep his word.”

Should the project proceed, spoils would be dumped at least temporarily at several Salem County sites, one in Gloucester County, and another in Delaware. Some spoils would be used for “beneficial uses,” such as restoring wetlands along Egg Island Point in Downe Township, Cumberland County.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other environmental groups say these spoils are likely to be contaminated by toxins such as heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Dredging could stir up other contaminated sediments as well, such as remnants of the 2004 Athos I oil spill at Paulsboro, a spill not accounted for in the Army Corps’ studies.

The Army Corps estimates the project will cost about $348 million, about two-thirds of which would be funded by the federal government and the rest by the PRPA. That estimate is a decade old, and critics such as Andrews do not believe it is accurate anymore.

Walls said $8 million in up-front funding from the PRPA would be enough to allow the Army to award a contract, though he stressed there is not yet a timeline for the project’s start.

So far, the Army Corps has only about $2.8 million in federal funding on hand for the project. Andrews does not anticipate the agency getting anymore because of questions about the project. U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, has echoed that sentiment, indicating he will not support funding until economic and environmental concerns are addressed.