Dredging up conflict on Delaware River

Joel Rose Dec 22, 2009

Dredging up conflict on Delaware River

Joel Rose Dec 22, 2009


Bill Radke: A federal judge could rule any day in a dispute over the Delaware River. The states on either side of the river are fighting over whether to deepen the Delaware to help cargo ships get through. Reporter Joel Rose says it’s being cast as a battle between the environment and much-needed jobs.

Joel Rose: There are some big ships that dock at the port of Philadelphia — like this one that’s delivering containers of fruit from Chile. But the largest ships can’t make it here, because the Delaware River isn’t deep enough. And port officials say that’s a big problem for the 45,000 people who make a living off these docks.

John Estey: We need to deepen the river to be competitive in the international marketplace.

John Estey is the chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. He says the Delaware River is only 40 feet deep, while ports in Baltimore and northern New Jersey are getting even deeper to accommodate bigger ships.

Estey: Every other East Coast port is either already at at least 45 feet, or going to 50 feet at the moment. We are the only that is not.

Congress authorized the deepening more than 15 years ago. If Pennsylvania were the only state involved, it probably would have happened by now. But the river also passes through New Jersey and Delaware.

Environmentalist Maya van Rossum says the project would stir up harmful chemicals trapped in the muck at the bottom of the river.

Maya van Rossum: It’s not just reintroduction of toxins into the food chain and into communities, which most certainly will result from a deepened channel. But it’s also threats and harms to aquatic species.

Last year, Delaware officials refused to grant a permit for the project. Then the Army Corps of Engineers decided it didn’t need permission and announced plans to start deepening the river anyway. For now, the issue is tied up in federal court.

Beau Biden is Delaware’s Attorney General:

Beau Biden: The Army Corps of Engineers has decided to ignore the laws of the state. They need to follow Delaware’s law before they begin to dredge waters in the state of Delaware.

But supporters of deepening the river say Delaware is just dragging its feet. If the project doesn’t get underway soon, Philadelphia port chairman John Estey warns that international shippers will take their business elsewhere.

Estey: It’s gonna say to the world we’re not interested in doing the things that are necessary to bring you here, to be welcoming to you.

A judge is expected to rule soon on Delaware’s objection. If the Army Corps of Engineers gets the green light, deepening the Delaware River could begin next month. If it doesn’t, there’s no telling when, or if, the project will happen.

In Philadelphia, I’m Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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