Agreement signed to deepen Delaware River

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The Delaware River's shipping channel will be deepened from from 40 to 45 feet. (David M Warren/Inquirer file photo)

Philadelphia's maritime industry - business executives, labor leaders, and longshoremen waving thank-you signs - cheered today as Army and Pennsylvania officials signed a formal agreement to deepen the Delaware River.

Gov. Rendell, calling it "the most important project in the history of the port," said dredging could begin in 10 months. He said the $379 million project would protect existing jobs and create tens of thousands more.

Not so fast, said a spokeswoman for New Jersey Gov. Corzine. "New Jersey is steadfast in its position that nothing can move forward until out-of-date environmental impact studies" are updated, said Elaine Makatura of the state Department of Environmental Protection, responding to a request for comment from Corzine.

Those starkly different reactions - exultation over predictions of thousands of jobs and even environmental benefits on the Pennsylvania shore, and caution on the New Jersey side - describe a further contentious and protracted process.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who began work on deepening the river in 1991, has referred to the long dredging battle with New Jersey as a "brass-knuckle affair with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake."

Rendell said that unless the river was deepened, its maritime terminals would "continue to lose business and jobs" to the Port of New York and New Jersey. The dredging agreement, he said, will bring "an avalanche of interest" from firms in expanding the port.

Lt. Col. Gwen E. Baker, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia District, said dredging would help the environment. It will, she said, straighten several bends, reducing the risk of accidents with the high volume of oil tankers and other big ships on the river.

"We've done extensive testing to confirm that the material we're removing is safe, and we will continue to monitor water quality throughout the projects," Baker said.

Dredging will be suspended at times to avoid adverse impacts on seasonal activities of aquatic life. Clean dredge materials will restore wetlands and create additional habitat for horseshoe crabs, she said.

"The Corps of Engineers has analyzed, planned, checked, rechecked and double-rechecked our engineering and science to get us to this point today," Baker said.

John Paul Woodley Jr., the assistant secretary of the Army here to sign the agreement, said the corps would seek beneficial uses of dredge materials, such as reclaiming strip mines and providing material for manufactured topsoil.

Rendell, through a spokeswoman, said he would appoint a task force to develop ways to use material from the river during the five-year project.

Specter, speaking at the ceremony on the busy docks at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, praised Rendell for negotiating what he thought was an end to the controversy, citing the deal reached with Corzine in May 2007.

Initially, the bistate Delaware River Port Authority was to have been local sponsor of the project. When New Jersey board members withdrew their support, Rendell used his power as chairman of the DRPA board, a position to which he had appointed himself, to put pressure on New Jersey.

Among other things, he kept the bistate board from meeting for 17 months. This blocked approval of the DRPA's annual budget and all but routine operations, holding up projects important to New Jersey.

Finally, the two governors reached an agreement last May that shifted the local share of funding to Pennsylvania. That deal led to the document signed today by Woodley, representing the Army, and officials of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, a state agency: chairman John H. Estey, a Philadelphia lawyer, and executive director James T. McDermott.

The project would create a 102-mile-long, 45-foot deep channel, five feet deeper than today, from Camden's Beckett Street Terminal to the Atlantic Ocean. The Corps of Engineers said about half that length is already 45 feet deep at low tide.

State Rep. William F. Keller (D., Phila.), a former longshoreman who along with U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady had backed Rendell, said dredging the river would attract private investment and create 45,000 port jobs and an additional 175,000 related to maritime activity in warehousing, sales, construction, trucking, banking, railroading, insurance, law and accounting.


Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com.