Appeals Court Gives Army Go Ahead to Dredge Delaware River

Environmentalists and administration both fear 100-mile project will sir up toxic sediments

The Christie administration said it plans to review its options in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling that allows the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to deepen a 102-mile stretch of the Delaware River from the mouth of the bay to Camden.

The U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed lower court rulings saying that the agency had complied with federal environmental laws in moving ahead with the much delayed project, which had been challenged by the state of New Jersey and environmental groups.

The issue has been source of much contention, pitting environmentalists who fear toxins buried in sediments will spread throughout the river and proponents who view it as crucial to bringing economic activity to ports in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“Gov. Christie and I have remained steadfast in our position that the Army Corps of Engineers must be compelled to openly and thoroughly assess the impacts that deepening the shipping channel would have on the ecology of the river, including impacts to South Jersey’s ecologically sensitive wetlands,’’ said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Matrin. “The administration will review its options.’’

In its 67-page ruling, the court rejected the state’s demand for new studies necessary to protect the environment.

In their filings, environmentalists argued the dredging to make the main shipping channel of the river five feet deeper — from 40 to 45 feet — could affect the water quality of the waterway and pose threats to fish species, such as the shortnose sturgeon, which is on the federal Endangered Species list.

The court noted, however, that studies by the Corps found the project would likely affect no more than 57 shortnose sturgeon, a very small number of the population of the fish in the Delaware River.

The project, first authorized by Congress in 1992, will result in more than 232 million cubic yards of sediments being dumped in confined disposal facilities along ecologically sensitive creeks and wetlands in Gloucester and Sale counties. Testing by the DEP shows that the sediments contain elevated levels of PCBs, metals, and other contaminants.

The state agency maintained that the Army Corps relied on limited and outdated data, largely of sediment samples taken from routine maintenance dredging, and did not take samples from areas that are more likely to be the most contaminated.

The three-judge panel rejected that argument.

“For over 20 years, the Corps has devoted substantial efforts to evaluating the proposed five-foot deepening project for the Delaware River, ‘’ it said. Among other things, it noted that the agency had conducted three comprehensive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) studies to assess the impact of the project.

The court agreed with the assessment of the agency’s final environmental study, released in 2009. That report recommended the project proceed because its substantial economic benefits outweigh any possible adverse environmental effects.

Deepening the channel would benefit oil tankers, dry bulk shippers, and other large vessels, eliminating the need to transfer a portion of their cargo in the lower Delaware Bay, the assessment concluded.