Army Corps OKs start of Delaware dredging

By Linda Loyd, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Feb. 24–The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers yesterday gave a dredging contractor the green light to begin deepening the Delaware River shipping channel an additional five feet.

The Army Corps said it had awarded a $24 million contract option to Norfolk Dredging Co. of Chesapeake, Va., which is currently doing maintenance dredging in the river to keep the navigation channel at its present 40-foot depth.

The actual deepening to 45 feet will not begin before Friday, the date the government advised the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia that it intends to start.

Environmental groups opposing the $300 million, 102.5-mile project have petitioned the Third Circuit to stay, or block, a federal judge’s order last month that permitted deepening to begin in a 12-mile section of river off Delaware.

Yesterday, the Corps said no work would begin until the local sponsor, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), a Pennsylvania state agency, had completed purchase of “emission reduction credits” needed to comply with the U.S. Clean Air Act.

“We anticipate that will also be wrapped up by the end of this week,” said Ed Voigt, the Corps’ chief public- and legislative-affairs spokesman in Philadelphia. “If we have the emission-reduction credits by then, and the Third Circuit does not direct us otherwise, deepening could begin as early as this Friday.”

Dec. 28 was the original deadline for the deepening-contract option, which Norfolk Dredging extended 45 days until Feb. 11, and then, most recently, 30 more days, until March 13. That was the “no later than” date, Voigt said. “But, of course, we’re free to exercise the option earlier than that date, which is what we are doing today.”

If the appeals court does not stay, or stop, U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson’s ruling, the long-delayed river deepening, authorized by Congress in 1992, will start “if everything else is ready to go on our end,” Voigt said.

“That’s my understanding, that the award is due out today,” said Norfolk Dredging Co. vice president Graham Payne, adding he was aware of the decades-old controversy over deepening the river.

“I would think it will provide a lot of jobs and opportunities, especially in view of the fact that everybody else has had their harbors deepened in the last decade,” Payne said.

Supporters say the project is vital to keep the river’s ports competitive. Opponents say it will stir up toxic sediment, harm water quality, and cause “irreparable” environmental harm.

“From a moral and civic responsibility, it’s irresponsible for the Army Corps and the PRPA to use public funds to pursue a project that they know is being challenged to prevent it from moving forward,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum, whose environmental group opposes the Corps’ proceeding after being denied a state permit by Delaware in July.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to be representing the best interests of the public,” van Rossum said, “and potentially wasting $25 million cannot, by anybody’s definition, be seen as in the best interests of the public, regardless of how you feel about the project.”

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

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