The maritime industry on the Delaware River is in a stormy mood.
A developer, Charles Gallub, who now uses dredged materials from the Port of New York and New Jersey to reclaim a brownfields site in Camden County, is also buying the only site on the Delaware that accepts silt from maintenance dredging of the river.
Maritime executives and port officials are afraid that site, adjacent to the Commodore Barry Bridge in Logan Township, Gloucester County, will be filled with dredged materials from the New York port to hasten the day when Gallub can build on it.
Gallub already has plans for a substantial commercial development on the Camden County property, in Bellmawr.
The furor is "based on misinformation that's being spread around," Gallub said. He pledges that the site will remain available to the river's maritime industry.
State Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester), whose district includes the Logan site, joins others who fear that Gallub will use dredged material from the New York port and the Raritan River to ready the site for more commercial development.
If the site is reserved for Delaware River maintenance dredging, it will serve the 41 facilities on the river that accept ships and barges for 15 to 30 years, said Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware Bay and River, a business trade association.
"If that site is not available for Delaware River dredging, it would increase costs, make our ports uncompetitive, and jeopardize thousands of jobs," Sweeney said.
Rochford said the current cost of $20 to $25 per cubic yard would soar to $75 or more if the spoils have to be hauled to distant, hard-to-acquire sites. An estimated 350,000 cubic yards are dredged annually from around the river's piers, docks and water inlets.
The dredging involved is not the long-debated deepening of the Delaware River from the current 40 to 45 feet. It is the routine maintenance dredging around seaport terminals, shipyards, refineries, the Navy's inactive fleet piers and municipal water inlets.
These areas silt up - rapidly in times of heavy rainfall - and have to be dredged.
Sweeney said he would use his influence as Senate majority leader and Gloucester County freeholder director to preserve the site for maintenance dredging on the Delaware River.
Lisa McGee, chief engineer of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, a state agency, and others agree that the Logan site, called White's Basin, is the only place on the Delaware River where maintenance-dredging material can be deposited.
Her agency alone now pays about $2.5 million a year to remove silt.
Joseph A. Balzano, chief executive of the state-owned South Jersey Port Corp., said he believed that dredging costs for terminal operators "would more than double" if the Logan site was unavailable.
Gallub insists that it will be. "It will serve the Delaware River from now until forever," he assured.
Port officials are wary of an unfolding situation.
The site's current owner, American Atlantic Co., has been leasing its use to Weeks Marine Inc., of Camden, one of the world's largest dredging companies, since 1993.
The deal expires only when the site is full, said Frank Capece, a lawyer for Weeks Marine.
But when Weeks Marine sought to renew its New Jersey permit to use the site, which expires Thursday, American Atlantic balked.
Gallub acknowledged Friday that his pending purchase contract requires that American Atlantic wrest the permit from Weeks. "We feel the appropriate party to hold the permit is the landowner," Gallub said.
Gallub's permission to use New York Port dredged material to ready his Camden County property for commercial construction has further unnerved maritime industry officials on both sides of the river.
The Bellmawr project is one of two sites in South Jersey receiving New York-dredged material, the state environmental agency confirmed Friday. The other is the former Hercules Chemical Plant reclamation project in Burlington County.
The Logan Township dredge disposal site is 2,400 acres, split by the New Jersey approach to the Commodore Barry Bridge. Gallub said he planned an industrial maritime development on the part of the site south of the bridge, called Raccoon Island. "That area has not been used for dredged material for more than 30 years," Gallub said.
The land north of the bridge will continue to receive dredged material, Gallub said, adding that he would seek a permit for a processing plant to turn spoils into "beneficial uses," such as preparing Raccoon Island for development. His plans include solar-energy collectors on the site's levees.
Maritime interests remain worried.
Losing the dredge-disposal site could jeopardize four major port-expansion projects on the Jersey side of the river as well as anticipated port growth in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Sweeney said.
"These port projects will create thousands of well-paying jobs," Sweeney said.
McGee, the Philadelphia port engineer, said the dispute could cause Weeks to move its equipment from the river to its other locations.
"Having to bring equipment to the river from other areas would add hundreds of thousands of dollars to dredging projects," McGee said.
Meanwhile, Gallub said that his Bellmawr project was "progressing nicely" and that buildings would begin to go up later this year.
Gallub's attorney, Donald Nogowski of Earp Cohn, the Cherry Hill firm that includes veteran State Sen. John H. Adler (D., Camden), defended the use of New York dredged material at the site.
"The material is treated to meet residential soil standards, one of highest levels of cleanliness. It is not what most people would consider New York-dredged material," Nogowski said.
The first phase in Bellmawr, along Big Timber Creek, is expected to be completed in 2010. Gallub said it would include 600,000 square feet of retail and commercial space - a large retailer, a multiplex cinema, four hotels, four restaurants, and a regional visitors center.
The Logan site will be different. No hotels or stores will go there, Gallub insists.
That, said Sweeney and maritime officials, had better be true.
"I'd vehemently oppose closing the site," the senator said. "I don't want to see condos there."