Delaware rejects permit for dredging in the bay

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, July 25, 2009.)

Delaware’s top environmental official rejected a permit application for the deepening of the Delaware River shipping channel in a move that could jeopardize the project.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara signed the order Thursday rejecting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ application to deepen the channel by 5 feet to 45 feet.

O’Mara based his decision on a hearing officer’s 2003 finding that the Army Corps failed to show how it would minimize adverse environmental effects caused by the deepening of the channel, which stretches from about six miles west of Cape May Point north to the Port of Philadelphia.

The hearing officer, Timothy Bureau, recommended rejecting the application, but Delaware officials made no formal decision until after the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network took legal action in December to force one.

O’Mara indicated the project has changed a great deal since 2001, which necessitated more information and his refusal to approve the deepening application. However, he did leave open the possibility that the Army Corps could apply again, writing that his decision was “without prejudice to any future permit application.”

Army Corps officials have yet to decide on their next course of action.

“We just received this notice this afternoon, so we’re still re-evaluating and reformulating our position on that,” spokesman Steve Rochette said Friday.

Delaware’s decision gave more ammunition to critics of the plan, who say it would stir up pollution from the riverbed and result in the spoils being dumped almost entirely in New Jersey. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report found the project would return only 50 cents on every dollar invested.

“The science, facts and economic studies have shown us all the tremendous harm deepening the Delaware to 45 feet could cause,” Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum said. “If the Army Corps attempts to ignore the need for a Delaware permit and move the project forward without one, as it has repeatedly threatened, we will take whatever steps necessary and possible to challenge and stop them.”

The Army Corps indicated last year that it may not need further approvals to begin the project. Some, including the state governments of New Jersey and Delaware, dispute that. New Jersey granted a water quality certification in 1997 but revoked it in 2002 because of economic and environmental questions. Delaware still requires the wetlands and subaqueous lands permits that O’Mara refused to grant.

However, that has not dampened the support of business and union leaders, who have since 1983 touted the project as a way to increase marine traffic up the river to the ports of Philadelphia and Camden. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell supports it as well.

“The deepening will not only create more than 13,000 new jobs and provide millions of dollars of positive economic benefit, but it will improve the safety of the river for everyone ship that pulls into port,” said Dan Fee, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which is sponsoring the project with the Army Corps.

The PRPA entered the picture in 2007 as part of a deal Rendell brokered with Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Previously, the bistate Delaware River Port Authority had been the project sponsor, and such sponsorship is required for any Army Corps project.

Rendell boycotted DRPA meetings, preventing them from being held and prompting the 2007 deal that eventually transferred sponsorship to the PRPA. That agreement indicated the dredge spoils would be disposed of in Pennsylvania, except for parts sought by New Jersey and Delaware for wetlands and beach restoration.

However, the PRPA and Army Corps said they had no plans to honor the deal because they did not sign it, and Rendell indicated he has no power over the quasi-independent authority, despite the fact that he appoints several of its members. Plans now call for most of the spoils to be dumped at federal sites in Salem County.