Controversial Delaware Deepening to Continue

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An longstanding project to deepen Delaware Bay and the Delaware River from the Atlantic Ocean to Camden, New Jersey, will continue, thanks to a $35 million infusion from president Obama’s 2015 fiscal year budget. The president’s 2014 budget already includes $20 million for the work.

The 102.5-mile long U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, designed to deepen the shipping channel to 45 feet from the mouth of Delaware Bay, all the way up to Camden, has been in the works since 1983.The first Congressional funding came in 1999, when $200 million was designated for the massive plan. And almost immediately, environmental groups and individual states began to challenge it.

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The groups and states cited concerns not only about the disposal of dredge spoil from the project, but the effect dredging would have on wildlife, including fish such as the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, an anadromous fish that spends much of its life in the ocean, but spawns in the freshwater upper reaches of the Delaware River. After the planning phases, but just before the project began, groups started filing lawsuits in federal court to stop the project.

In 2009, the National Wildlife Federation, the Delaware Nature Society, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, Clean Water Action, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed suit, claiming the dredging violates a handful of federal environmental laws. Before long, the state governments of both Delaware and New Jersey joined in, filing their own lawsuits in federal court. By mid-2012, federal appeals courts had dismissed all of the suits challenging the project.

So why spend all this money for a project so many people seem to despise? Short answer: The billions of dollars in trade expected to come to the United States once larger ships start transiting through the expanded Panama Canal from Asia. The state of Delaware actually publicly supports the project today, a virtual 180-degree flip-flop from the time when it was fighting the plans in court.

As of late 2013, the project was about 65 percent complete and work had begun in the Delaware Bay itself. The final phase of the project will be in the Delaware River between Philadelphia’s Walt Whitman Bridge and Camden, NJ. The project is expected to be complete in 2017.

 A dredge works the waters off Philadelphia as part of a massive dredging project to deepen 102 miles of the Delaware Bay watershed. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

A dredge works the waters off Philadelphia as part of a massive dredging project to deepen 102 miles of the Delaware Bay watershed. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

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