News

June 7, 2001

Lt. Col. Timothy Brown said he is "willing to entertain" a proposal that an independent group monitor the deepening of the Delaware River ship channel if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to proceed with the controversial project. Brown is commander of the corps' Philadelphia region.

Dick Fleming of the Delaware Nature Society offered the suggestion at a public hearing in Dover on June 6. He was not specific in defining the oversight group except to say it should be representative of "stakeholders" in the public and private sectors. Nor did he talk about what authority it might have over the course of the project.

The session was unusual in that the corps is the applicant for a Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control permit allowing the project to proceed. The state agency will hold a public hearing which counts at a time yet to be determined. Bill Moyer, its environmental program manager, said the transcript of proceedings at the corps' session will become part of the official record when Natural Resources does its thing..

Alan Muller of Green Delaware charged that participation by Natural Resources in the corps' session -- which included not only 'testimony' but also an elaborate array of poster displays dealing with various aspects of the project -- was a blatant conflict of interest. Objector groups were represented in the displays.

Among the material distributed to attenders was a 'facts sheet' which declared that dredging for a deeper channel "could begin as early as fall, 2001." That appeared virtually impossible as opposing groups clearly demonstrated they intend to take the issue down to whatever final line emerges. The General Accounting Office, the financial research arm of Congress, is

currently investigating the project and Moyer pointed out that a court fight is a possible followup if Delaware issues a permit.

Brown said that the military engineers are not proponents of the project but, as "stewards of the river," are obeying orders from Congress, which authorized the $311 million project in 1992, and the federal executive branch.

The plan is to deepen the shipping channel from the ocean through Delaware Bay and up the river to Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., to 45 feet from its present 40 feet. That will take an estimated four to five years to accomplish and require digging up and disposing of some 33 million cubic yards of river bottom.

That requirement is the nub of the controversy. Environmentalists claim that stirring up the bottom is equivalent to opening a proverbial Pandora's box and loosening a host of woes on the entire ecosystem of the region.

Fleming, for instance, noted the Delaware was once "used as a sewer, a cheap way to dispose of unwanted by-products" of the industries which lined its banks. Noting the extent of the cleanup which has occurred since the advent of environmental laws and regulations in the early 1970s, he said, "Many of us worry about risking a reversal."

Brown categorically denied any environmental danger. He said the river bottom

Civil engineer Tony DePasquale -- who works for the Army Corps of Engineers and is not related to Delaware's secretary of natural resourses -- discusses an environmental matter with an attender at the corps' public hearing.

has been thoroughly tested. "Out of the $10 million spent [on the project] so far, $7 million has been spent to make sure there will be no significant impact on the environment," he said. "There is no way we would allow a significant impact." He declared flatly that there is no toxic material in the mostly sand and rock that will be displaced.

Negotiations are under way looking to one possible use for the stuff, as fill to close abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania, he said. Another use mentioned at the hearing was providing fill dirt for construction of the two sports stadiums planned for Philadelphia.

Although professing a neutrality of sorts, Brown repeatedly described the project as well intentioned and carefully designed to "balance the social, economic and environmental needs of the region." He pointed out that the Corps of Engineers, which has responsibility to maintain the nation's navigable inland waterways, has been caring for the Delaware since 1866 with a strong implication its people know what they are doing.

He said that dredging to maintain the current 40 foot channel has been a continuous process for many years.

Unabashedly partisan on the issue is the project's co-sponsor, the Delaware River Port Authority, which is putting up $100 million of the total cost. The authority is a bi-state -- Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- quasipublic agency established to advance the interests of the upriver ports.

Liz Murphy, the authority's chief operating officer, said that channel deepening is necessary to preserve the competitiveness of the ports and the 54,000 jobs they provide. Responding to objectors' claim that the project is intended primarily to benefit the four oil companies which have refineries along the river, Murphy said that 80% of the port-related jobs "have nothing to do with the petroleum industry."

Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange of the Delaware River and Bay, a private-sector trade group involving business interests in all three states washed by the waterway, said deepening is essential to preserving the competitiveness of the ports vis--vis New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston and Savannah. Specifically, he said that container ships which now draw 38 feet will soon be replaced by newer models which require 42 feet of clearance.

"What we need on the river is deeper water [just] to keep the business we have," he said.

Echoing his sentiments was Michael Sprague, representing the Port of Wilmington. He called a deeper river channel "a logical extension of the Interstate Highway System" and a "significant business opportunity:" for the state-operated local port, which last year hosted nearly 500 vessels and moved 5 million tons of cargo.

Maya van Rossum, who identified herself as "the Delaware Riverkeeper" and said she was speaking for a coalition of 22 local, state and national environmentally involved organizations, said the economic arguments were, for the most part, spurious. She said the ports, which lie as far as 100 miles upriver, is at a natural disadvantage of deep-water ports on the ocean itself. "The niche for these ports is as a 'feeder' to the container ship ports of New York and Baltimore." she said. Baltimore lies at the head of Chesapeake Bay.

She said that the Port of Wilmington, which is actually on the Delaware's Christina River tributary is presently accessed by a channel less than 40 feet deep. There are no plans, she said, to deepen its approach nor provide deeper access to the piers at the refineries. She claimed that 80% of the projected economic benefits will accrue to the refineries "who are contributing nothing to the cost" and have so far shied away from committing to any investment to improve their faculties to take advantage of a deeper channel.

"When the lack of economic benefit is coupled with the serious threat to the environment it becomes painfully obvious that this project should not move forward," she said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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Go the the Delaware Riverkeeper Web site

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