Proponents of the Army Corps of Engineer’s channel deepening project claim opposition by local politicians is self-serving, a betrayal of their constituents’ best interests, anti-business and anti-labor.
By Lee Williams
(Note: this story can also be found in CRI’s Special Report section.)
The Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Delaware River since the 1800s, when the river was 18-feet deep. The current 40-foot depth has been maintained regularly since World War II.
If Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell had his way, they’d be dredging the river deeper tomorrow, but a proposal by the Corps of Engineers to deepen parts of the shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet is in jeopardy.
After Delaware and New Jersey officials took legal action to halt the dredging project, five environmental groups similarly filed suit – lawsuits Rendell believes are frivolous.
“What makes these suits a hoax is that we do dredging every year,” Rendell told the Caesar Rodney Institute. “We do maintenance dredging. When we’re allowed a 40-foot depth, silt accumulates and you have to dredge.”
If parts of the 103-mile shipping channel are dredged to 45 feet, Rendell and many others believe the increase in traffic will create more jobs throughout the region, in addition to safeguarding the jobs already here.
“I am a strong advocate of dredging. It’s essential for us in the Port of Philadelphia, southern New Jersey and the Port of Wilmington to remain competitive,” Rendell said. “We need to dredge to at least 45 feet. If we do so, we could add 10,000 to 40,000 good-paying longshoreman jobs. To get 10,000 to 40,000 jobs, especially in this economy, is like manna from heaven.”
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Attorney General Beau Biden and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine don’t see the Corps’ plan as heaven sent. None were willing to be interviewed for this story.
Privately, Corzine has admitted his opposition to the dredging project would end after he won re-election, a campaign he ultimately lost.
According to a former government official, during a meeting in late September, Corzine said, “I don’t give a shit about this dredging project. We just have to get through November 3rd.”
Corzine’s critics have accused him of supporting dredging that benefits the northern ports in his state, while ignoring the interests of southern New Jersey ports.
Rendell has spoken to Markell and Corzine about the need to deepen the channel by five feet, and he has a plan to overcome their opposition.
“I told them we’re going to create an oversight committee to make sure the dredging goes without any environmental problems,” Rendell said, adding that the viability of ports up and down the river is at risk if the project is stopped.
Who stopped the project?
The suits by the environmental groups didn’t halt the dredging. The Corps $300 million plan was already on hold. It was stopped dead because of a report issued in 2003 by an anonymous hearing officer working for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), who decided the Corps didn’t submit sufficient documentation, and that the plan changed during the intervening years, while DNREC sat on the paperwork.
“Studies, opinions and documentation required to corroborate requests to modify protective environmental windows are not part of the record,” the hearing officer wrote in his six-year-old report.
DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara cited this hearing officer’s report in his July 23 denial letter, sent to Lt. Col. Thomas Tickner, the Corps’ Philadelphia District Commander.
“Given the Hearing Officer’s recommendations, the significant changes to the scale of the project, the outdated nature of the record, and the potential procedural flaws in making such an important decision based upon the existing record, I have no alternative than to deny the permits,” O’Mara said in the letter.
O’Mara too was not willing to be interviewed for this story.
His denial letter set off a chain reaction among politically ambitious state officials on both sides of the river.
On Oct. 30, Biden filed suit in federal court to stop the project, arguing the project infringed upon his state’s sovereign rights.
“The decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to begin deepening Delaware waters is a direct challenge to the territorial authority of the State of Delaware and violates federal and state law,” Biden is quoted as saying in a press release. “We will aggressively enforce our right to regulate and control any activity conducted on the Delaware River within Delaware’s boundaries. Instead of working with Delaware by addressing longstanding critical concerns about the impact of the proposed dredging project, the Corps decided to proceed to deepen Delaware waters without Delaware’s approval.”
Less than two weeks later, at Corzine’s direction, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram – who was appointed in 2007 by Corzine – joined Biden’s suit, a move Biden trumpeted in yet another press release.
“New Jersey’s decision demonstrates its shared commitment with Delaware to protect the territorial integrity of our states and our natural resources,” Biden is quoted as saying in a Nov. 10 press release. “I applaud New Jersey’s swift action in this case…”
A week later, the environmental groups piled on.
The actions of the two attorneys general produced consternation and a lot of head scratching at the Corps, who like Rendell pointed out there’s almost always maintenance dredging going on somewhere on the river, in order to maintain a navigable depth.
“There’s a lot about this project that’s unique for us,” said Ed Voigt, spokesman for the Corps’ Philadelphia District.
The Corps, he said, first applied for DNREC permits in 2001, so of course the plan morphed somewhat while the department took no action.
As to the five lawsuits, Voigt pointed to the Corp’s reams of environmental impact statements.
“There have been $8 million worth of environmental studies to date,” he said. “There have been samples looking at salinity, ground water impact, contaminant levels, impact on shellfish and endangered species.”
What did the studies determine?
“There is no significant impact,” he said. “It’s environmentally safe. The channel’s clean. It’s a very thorough battery of tests.”
Voigt said one on the “traps” people fall into when considering dredging is the mistaken belief that contaminants in the silt will be disturbed by the process and float downstream. This risk, he said, is negated by the Corps’ ongoing maintenance dredging.
“Because of the maintenance of the channel for the past 70 years, there’s a vacuuming effect, a skimmering effect,” he explained. “As contaminants are introduced into the channel, they come back out.”
The Corps has already made plans to dispose of the 16 million cubic yards of sand, clay and silt – known as spoils – that will be removed from the river bottom once the plan is approved.
They say 11.9 million cubic yards of spoils will be placed on federal land in New Jersey and Delaware. In the past, the Corps has allowed these spoils to be used for public works projects. Several years ago, the West Deptford Township used 150,000 cubic yards in its riverfront development project.
The remaining 4.1 million cubic yards, mostly sand from the Delaware Bay, is slated to be used for shore protection.
It’s about jobs
The Holt Logistics Corp. was founded in 1926 by Leo Holt, who started with a single truck – new technology for its time.
Holt raised his family in Philadelphia, making deliveries around the region with a small fleet of two trucks.
He lost everything during the Great Depression, by using the trucks as collateral in a loan he guaranteed for a friend. He managed to rebuild, and passed a successful trucking business to his two sons, Leo and Tom.
In 1967, the two brothers managed to buy a piece of an old shipyard, expanding the family business into the maritime industry.
Today, the founder’s grandson Leo A. Holt oversees a diversified business, with more than 1,500 people depending on him for their livelihood.
Holt believes the politicians who oppose dredging are not taking into account the best interests of their constituents. Unless the plan is implemented, Holt said the entire Delaware River estuary will be bypassed by vessels that require a deeper draft.
“There is so much these people have not answered in terms of their opposition,” he said. “If they do not take their hand off the throat of this, they run the risk of marginalizing their own populations. They are not only putting their hands on the throat of businesses, but their own people.”
If the plan is approved, the entire region will benefit.
“What we want to see is not just a port facility developed. We want to see distribution parks proximate to the port facilities, built in Delaware, Philadelphia and New Jersey,” he said. “That’s the front and the back of how the world evolves.”
Holt has already made commitments to expand his port facilities – commitments that are at risk if the river is not dredged.
“Our outlook is very simple. We just want to see more jobs, create more capital, put it back in our business, and reinvest in what we do,” Holt said.
Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Keller, D-Philadelphia, like Holt, questions the motivations of politicians who oppose the dredging plan.
Keller, a former longshoreman, said the issue is simple – it’s about creating more jobs.
“Some politicians have used this issue. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They may be able to win a local election by saying dredging is bad, but they’ll hurt the people who depend upon the river for a living,” Keller said. “It’s our job to create jobs. They say they’re for that, but their actions are different.”
Keller said more than 75,000 people currently depend on the port for their livelihood.
“If the politicians along the Delaware River don’t get their act together and get behind dredging, we’ll lose all those jobs and it will be our fault,” he said. “In Philadelphia, we can’t afford to lose those jobs. I don’t think the people of Wilmington can either.”
Gov. Minner’s role
Capt. Mike Linton, former president of the Delaware Bay Pilots Association, spent 48 years on the river.
He ferried former Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner up and down the river, to familiarize the governor with the Corps’ proposal.
“She was on the river at least three times. She knew quite a bit about it. She was in favor of the plan,” Linton said.
Linton believes Minner should have signed-off on the Corps’ proposal, and told her DNREC secretary to issue the necessary permits, instead of allowing the plan to gather dust in DNREC’s in-box.
“I’m very baffled why she didn’t do it,” he said.
Minner did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
“If we don’t’ dredge, the traffic we have in Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington will eventually go away,” Linton said.
The problem, he explained, is an aging fleet. The ships hauling the bulk of the fruit to local ports are in their “teens.” They’re designed to last approximately 20 years.
“The next generation of ships is being built to accommodate the Panama Canal,” he said. “They’re bigger. If we don’t get more water, what we have will wither on the vine and eventually go away.”
Linton and others say larger container ships will simply choose other ports with deeper access, such as Baltimore, Norfolk and Miami, which have a 50-foot depth, or New York, Charleston and northern New Jersey, which have dredged to 45-feet.
He and other dredging proponents point out that 1,000 trucks will be added to the region’s highways per day, if the channel is not deepened, which will increase pollution, traffic congestion and highway repair costs.
Green Delaware is not one of the five environmental groups suing to stop the Corps’ dredging project.
Green Delaware Executive Director Alan Muller, who opposes additional dredging, says the controversy is cyclical.
“For decades, there’s been an ongoing squabble between environmentalists and other interests. It’s fair to say, so far, the anti-dredging interests have prevailed. That’s the big picture,” Muller said. “Over the years, there’s been a big push to say [dredging] is needed and wanted. Now, we’re going through another cycle. There’s nothing unusual about that.”
From an environmentalist’s perspective, Muller said, part of the issue is trust.
“The Corps, at least as far as the Philadelphia District is concerned, no one trusts them,” he said. “Everything they say seems to be automatically regarded as a lie.”
Muller said the “vacuuming effect” of constant dredging is itself problematic, and responsible for two types of pollutants.
“The technical lingo is ‘suspended in the water column,’ which means when you go along the bottom with the cutter, it loosens everything up. Some gets sucked up into the spoils area, the other heads down river,” he said. “The conflict is one: what is suspended in the water, and two: where do you put the spoils?”
Muller dismissed the idea proposed by some dredging proponents of dumping the spoils into old coal mines.
“[The spoils] are the consistency of a can of black bean soup. No one wants to put that into rail cars and haul it to Scranton. What would the effect on the groundwater be?” he asked. “And it’s expensive.”
If the spoils were deposited above ground, he said, a good rain would allow contaminants to leech out and re-enter the groundwater.
“A lot of the environmentalists’ objections to this are philosophical,” he said. “They feel the river has been used as a channel for commerce ever since white people showed up. Now it’s time to pay a little attention to the river itself.”
Rep. Keller disagrees, and points to the Corps’ environmental impact studies.
“There are 12,000 pages of scientific data saying it’s fine. As a matter of fact, it’s better than fine,” he said. “This is about one thing – job creation.”
Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at (302) 242-9272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Caesar Rodney Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan research and educational organization and is committed to being a catalyst for improved performance, accountability, and efficiency in Delaware government.
© Copyright Dec. 7, 2009 by the Caesar Rodney Institute.
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