Delaware River Dredging Called Economically Justified

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - A massive dredging project on the Delaware River would be economically justified, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concludes in a new analysis released Wednesday. The Corps suspended the project in April after a Congressional review raised concerns about whether the project is financially justified - concerns the agency says it has now addressed.

A comprehensive economic reanalysis of the Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project, performed by the Corps, concludes that the project will yield a net benefit of $1.18 for every $1 spent on the project.


A contract dredge works in the Delaware River as part of routine dredging to maintain the 40 foot shipping channel. (Photo by Anthony Bley. Three photos and map courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
"Our comprehensive economic reanalysis shows that the Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project is a sound investment for the nation," said Major General Robert Griffin, director of Civil Works for the Corps.

"The reanalysis has been thoroughly reviewed by an external independent panel," Griffin added. "That panel determined the reanalysis to be based on sound economics. I would also add that this reanalysis has been subjected to a level of scrutiny and independent review that is unprecedented on a Corps project."

The channel dredging project was authorized by Congress in 1992, but controversy over its economic benefits and environmental risks have stalled the project for more than a decade. Work on the Delaware project was suspended by Griffin on April 22, following a briefing by the General Accounting Office that criticized a Corps economic reevaluation of the project performed in 1998.

The Corps plans to dredge more than 102 miles (165 kilometers) of the Delaware River from the channels current depth of 40 feet (12 meters) to a depth of 45 feet (about 14 meters), opening the river to larger ships from the mouth of the Delaware River to Philadelphia. The agency says the project would allow the transport of heavier loads of crude oil, coal, iron ore and steel, providing substantial economic benefits to industry - primarily to a handful of oil companies that have refineries in the region.


The area that the Corps proposes to dredge.
Conservation groups have opposed the dredging project since it was first conceived, warning that the dredging activities themselves and the dredge spoils they will produce will pose public health and environmental risks.

Major General Griffin said he expects that groups critical of the dredging project will take a close look at the new economic analysis, but he believes the analysis "will stand up to additional scrutiny as a result of the thorough review by the external independent review panel."

The economic review was performed by an external economic consulting firm, and the Corps contracted two other external reviewers for an independent technical review of the analysis. Another external independent company reviewed all the documents, assumptions, economic models, and actions leading to the preparation of the report.

Following their comments on the draft, the Corps addressed their concerns and produced the final reanalysis for their review and approval.

Griffin says the reanalysis takes into account many of the changes that have taken place at the Port of Philadelphia since the original 1992 project feasibility study. These changes include a greater diversity of products transported to the port, such as furnace slag and steel imports, that were not factors in 1992.


A containerized vessel unloads its cargo at the Packer Avenue Terminal in Philadelphia, with the Walt Whitman Bridge and the city of Philadelphia in the background.
"We have met the conditions placed upon us for this reanalysis," Griffin said. "GAO criticism of our 1998 report was well founded, and I believe today's reanalysis is much stronger as a result of their report."

The Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project has been included in the federal budget each year since 1999. In March 2000, the dredging proposal was ranked as the second worst Corps project in the nation in a report issued jointly by the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Maya van Rossum of the conservation group Delaware Riverkeeper says the latest Corps analysis fails to take into account the costs of a variety of environmental impacts that the project is expected to have. In a report issued earlier this year, Delaware Riverkeeper charged that the Corps has failed to identify environmentally safe disposal facilities for dredge materials, or create plans to protect horseshoe crabs.

Deepening the Delaware River would generate about 33 million cubic yards of dredge spoils in just the first four years. Another six million cubic yards would be generated each year to maintain the project.

The dredged material was slated to be placed at Broadkill, Port Mahon, Rehoboth/Dewey beaches and Kelly Island in Delaware. Conservation groups have raised concerns that the dredging spoils could smother recently spawned horseshoe crabs on the beaches.

"After 10 years, the Corps is unable to show that it has acquired adequate and appropriate disposal sites for the dredge material," said van Rossum. "Because the project is continually changing, its true environmental impacts are still unclear."

crabs mating

Conservation groups warn that dumping dredged materials on beaches could harm horseshoe crabs. (Photo by Bill Hall, University of Delaware, courtesy NOAA)
The Delaware Bay is a crucial spawning area for the Atlantic Coast horseshoe crab population. Migratory shorebirds, sea turtles and other species depend on horseshoe crab eggs as a critical food source. Each year, birdwatchers spend millions of dollars in the region, providing an important off season revenue source for local communities.

"The Delaware Bay has been listed as one of 100 globally important bird areas by the American Bird Conservancy and is the epicenter of spawning activity for the Atlantic Coast horseshoe crab population," said Leslie Savage of the Delaware Audubon Society. "Horseshoe crab eggs support critical staging areas for hundreds of thousands of migrant shorebirds each spring that must replenish fat reserves on long flights from their wintering grounds in South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic."

Horseshoe crabs are also commercially fished as bait for conch and eel fishing and used for medical research purposes. A sustainable population of these ancient creatures is considered so important that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has adopted rigid fishing restrictions aimed at their protection.

The Delaware Riverkeeper report warns that the Corps plan would not protect people or wildlife from ozone causing emissions from dredging operations and barges. The group also wants better safeguards to protect endangered wildlife, such as the shortnosed sturgeon, from rock blasting.


A cargo ship passes under a bridge along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, heading north to Philadelphia. The Corps has suspended plans to deepen the canal based on economic concerns. (Photo by Anthony Bley)
Other problems with the dredging project include threats to drinking water supplies and industrial intakes, the said. The Corps still needs to analyze the impact of sea level rise and depletive water use on the potential for salt water intrusion into drinking water supplies and industrial intakes.

In September, these environmental concerns prompted New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Bradley Campbell to revoke that agency's "federal coastal zone consistency determination" for the Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project. Campbell wrote that since the determination was first issued in 1997, "numerous reviews and subsequent developments have substantially changed the record for this project and may substantively affect the assumptions and conclusions that formed the basis for New Jersey's consistency determination in 1997."

"Commissioner Campbell has made the most responsible decision for New Jersey, which stands to lose the most if this project moves forward," said Delaware Riverkeeper's van Rossum. "Just as the GAO study demonstrated that the deepening would not benefit federal interest, I am confident that New Jersey's reevaluation will demonstrate that the project does not benefit South Jersey's interests nor the vital health of the Delaware River ecosystem."