The bitterly contested deepening of the Delaware River's shipping channel officially began at noon yesterday, in water near Delaware City, Del.

No fanfare marked the moment, no fireworks or ribbon-cutting.

To most observers, digging five feet deeper might have been indistinguishable from the routine maintenance dredging that has been going on for several weeks in that stretch of river, to keep the channel at its current 40-foot depth. But supporters and opponents of the controversial project seized the occasion to launch dueling media blitzes.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), who in 1983 introduced the initial legislation to deepen the river ports to 45 feet, heralded the start of the 102.5-mile dredging in a conference call.

Yesterday, he said, he introduced a bill to amend the federal Mining Control and Reclamation Act so that federal funds may be used to transport dredge material taken from the river, after drying at federal sites, to abandoned coal mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania, including Hazleton.

Dredging opponents - led by Gov. Christie, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), and New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) - stood next to the river at Red Bank Battlefield in Gloucester County and vowed to use every resource possible in the courts and in Congress to halt the six-year project.

"It makes no sense economically. It is dangerous environmentally," said Christie, joined by Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum and representatives of other environmental groups.

"There is no reason why, for a project that will have no positive effect on the economy for the state of New Jersey, that New Jersey should wind up being the repository for the dredge spoils that are going to be created," he said. "I simply don't buy the argument from the oil industry that this is going to be helpful to the economic situation in our region."

Andrews said he would battle to hold up future federal funding, and noted that President Obama's proposed spending plan for the coming fiscal year contained "zero dollars" for the dredging.

"We are going to work with our congressional delegation to keep it that way," Andrews said. "No earmarks, no additions, no pork projects going in for this."

Specter, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called it "customary" for the president's budget to lack funds for not-yet-started public-works projects.

"We will get whatever additional funding is needed," he said. "This program has the support of the administration. It has the support of the Department of Defense."

Specter, who was joined by Philadelphia Regional Port Authority Chairman John Estey, said the deepening was the most important project in the history of the Wilmington, South Jersey, and Philadelphia ports, with thousands of jobs in the balance.

"If we do not deepen, our ports will slowly wither and die," Estey said. "As we emerge from the worst recession since the 1930s, I wish that elected officials opposed to the project would direct the same passion toward protecting American workingmen and women that they now direct to protecting the environment from unknown and unquantified harm."

In five years, Estey said, most ships operating internationally will require at least 42 feet of water, and shipping companies are making decisions now for five and 10 years in the future.

On Thursday, a day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia denied an injunction to halt the river deepening, one of the three largest U.S. shipping lines, Hamburg Sud, called Estey and asked for a meeting the next day.

"They wanted to talk about what they could do to bring their service back to Philadelphia," Estey said. "So if you want to talk about immediate impact, that's immediate impact."

Currently, work is proceeding to deepen the Port of New York and New Jersey to 50 feet. When asked whether he opposed the North Jersey project, Christie responded: "Today, I am here to talk about the Delaware River deepening, which I've opposed from the time I became a candidate for governor and which I'll continue to oppose as governor.

"We'll make judgments on each one of these projects on their own. I'm not ready today to answer questions about the deepening up at the New York port," he said. "Today, we're here to talk about protecting South Jersey's environment, and making sure we spend resources on things that are actually going to grow jobs in New Jersey."

Andrews said he did not oppose the New York deepening project. "All the environmental permits were applied for, and received, unlike here. New Jersey taxpayers were not ever asked to be on the hook for that, unlike we were here."

"As far as the dredge spoils, a very insignificant amount came to South Jersey," Andrews said. "That's a case where the Army Corps followed the law."

The way to create jobs for New Jersey, Andrews and Sweeney said, is to build piers, rails, warehouses, and new ports, such as in Paulsboro.

"We need to create economic development, recreational opportunities, along our river," Sweeney said.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), a staunch proponent of the Delaware deepening, said Andrews and Sweeney "used to play good guy, bad guy" in conversations with him about it.

"When I went to Rob Andrews, he said it was Sweeney" who was opposed. "When I went to Sweeney, he said it was Rob Andrews," Brady said. "This has gone on for years. Now they are together? So, they are together.

"I guess they want all the work to go to North Jersey, where the port is 50 feet," Brady said. "And they don't want us to compete in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, we're going to fight the fight. This is vital. We need jobs, jobs, jobs right now."

For more on the Delaware River dredging issue, including previous coverage and court documents, go to www.philly.com/dredging

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Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.