Guest Blogger: Dredging the Delaware detrimental to local environment – and economy

There is no question that the Delaware River is not the busy shipping channel it once was, but is an extensive dredging project with a 9-figure price tag really the best way to revitalize it? Punctuated by the closing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1995, the Delaware has experienced a decades-long decline in traffic. For almost 20 years, the battle over dredging the river has raged on.
Following a ruling by a federal judge last month, the Army Corps of Engineers was ready last week to begin the project. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and several environmental groups have expressed concerns over the environmental and economic impact of the dredging. Work has been delayed while the appeals court hears a case from five environmental groups seeking to block the project, and this court should strongly consider overturning the ruling made in January.
The environmental impact of this project is unquestionable. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to dispose of the dredged-up soil in South Jersey, but the last time these sediments were tested for quality was over a decade ago. Without up-to-date data, the Army Corps should be finding it difficult to provide a reasonable estimate of the effects the dredging project would have on the ecology of South Jersey. Instead, they propose to more forward as is, already seeking approval for remaining sections of the river. As Christie noted, “It is irresponsible for the Army Corps to push this dredging project forward.” The Army Corps of Engineers and local governments should be taking time to more carefully assess the environmental impact this project will have on the Delaware River Valley.
The emphasis on this renewed push to begin the dredging has much to do with the current economy – proponents assert that deepening the river will attract larger shipping companies, whose ships have deeper drafts, thus bringing much-needed jobs to the region. I do not disagree with this point. However, it seems like the costs and benefits have not been properly analyzed. The project is currently expected to cost about 300 million dollars. With the number of organizations, governments and interests involved, it is likely that this figure will become larger as the project wears on. The states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey are virtually drowning under their budget woes, freezing spending in some areas and issuing large budget cuts in others. The federal government will be unlikely to provide much aid, with the national debt growing exponentially and the current administration fixated on healthcare reform. It is unreasonable to say the potential economic gains will outweigh the great monetary cost of this project at this time.
In the long run, deepening the Delaware River will likely attract more companies, and jobs to the region. Similar projects have been undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers in other shipping lanes around the country, including North Jersey / New York a few years ago. However, as Governor Christie noted, it seems as though this particular project is not being treated with the same environmental caution as in New York. Done properly, dredging the Delaware can certainly bring economic benefits to the region without harming the environment. Proper caution cannot be exercised without recent, reliable data, one thing that seems to be missing from the planning of this project. I am not saying that environmental and marine science groups need to spend another decade analyzing sediment samples, migratory fish patterns, etc. But this project should not proceed until there is a clear picture of what harm will come to local environments and what economic benefits will come to the region. Old data are unreliable for forecasting environmental impact. Creation of jobs is far from guaranteed. The facilities for naval transport in Philadelphia, Wilmington and Camden have all deteriorated after years of sitting vacant or being underused. Large companies like Hanjin and Maersk will not want to spend the funds needed to rehabilitate docking facilities.
The Army Corps of Engineers and local planning councils have a good idea in dredging the Delaware, but hasty initiation and haphazard planning will undoubtedly lead to a project that does not achieve the goals it was designed for, while harming the local environment in the process. Proponents of deepening the channel should continue to assert the economic benefits of the plan, while coming up with a better way of disposing of the waste.


James Onofrio is a senior at Council Rock High School North who does not approve of the current plan to deepen the Delaware River

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