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The Proposal to Deepen the Delaware River
A Summary of Key Concerns and Issues

Submitted by:Maya K. van Rossum, Delaware River Keepers

The Delaware River deepening, a proposal to deepen the River’s main navigation channel from a depth of 40 to 45 feet for a distance of over 102 miles, puts in jeopardy all who rely upon the River. What’s more, it will waste tax dollars in the process.

While a self-interested few continue to claim that the deepening is of vital economic importance, expert analysis demonstrates that this is simply not true. After an in-depth review of the proposal, the Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress) determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ analysis of project benefits was based on “miscalculations, invalid assumptions, and outdated information.”

Correcting the Corps’ flawed analysis resulted in a reduced estimate of the project’s annual benefits from $40.1 million to only $13.3 million. Using the GAO’s corrected figures demonstrates that the benefit-cost ratio of the deepening project is only 46 cents of benefit for every dollar spent. In other words, the deepening project would waste 54 cents of every tax dollar spent on it.

Other reviews have also found claims of economic benefit to be far exaggerated. Even the Corps has admitted that under one scenario – a scenario that has in fact come to pass -- the project would generate only 82 cents for every dollar spent. No report, when viewed critically, has been able to justify the deepening economically.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the few economic benefits claimed for the deepening would be enjoyed largely by six oil facilities — one of which recently shut down. None of these facilities has invested in the project, and some even oppose the deepening, or have stated that it would provide them with no benefit. Why should taxpayers fund a project to which the primary beneficiary, a multi-billion-dollar industry, won’t contribute a dime?

A deepened channel is not needed to support port economic growth. In the past five years alone, record port growth has taken place along the Delaware without a deepened channel, or the prospect of one. For the year ending December 31, 2007, the Port of Camden recorded its third-highest volume in its history. Last summer, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority reported that containership traffic in the region was up 12%.

Even according to Philadelphia Regional Port Authority commissioned experts: at 45 feet the Delaware does not become more attractive because 45 feet is not enough depth, the future of our region is as a feeder port which is well served by a 40 foot channel, specifically they said: “The growing importance of feeder ports is a role that is emerging for the Ports of Philadelphia and Camden. The vessels that are becoming available for the feeder trade require less than 40’ draft.” This is the true future of ports of our region. Continued focus on the deepening proposal is preventing exploration of new ideas that truly could benefit the future of our ports and our region.

For over a decade, supporters have tried to convince the public that this proposal is in the public interest, that it does not threaten the Delaware River, and that it has cleared all environmental protection hurdles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The deepening will introduce heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxins into the River, threatening drinking water supplies, food chains, and wildlife, and putting at risk ecologically and economically important species, such as: horseshoe crabs, oysters, shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, sport fish, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and a species on the brink of extinction, the red knot. It will harm the marshes and wetlands that protect our coastlines, and dump toxic piles of dredged muck on southern New Jersey and Delaware communities. And it will increase the threat posed by oil spills.

Deepening the Delaware River to 45 feet is not at all the same as maintenance dredging at 40 feet. The threats to fish, wildlife, wetlands, drinking water, and communities identified by the many agencies and experts that have been reviewing this issue are associated with the deepening project. Deepening an additional 5 feet changes water patterns in such a way that it will exacerbate erosion of wetlands which are important ecologically, aesthetically and for storm protection. The deepening includes widening reaches of the channel into areas that are not now currently dredged – a number of which have been characterized as toxic hot spots. Deepening brings with it the need to dispose of more spoils — spoils laden with toxins which are going to be disposed of in areas and in ways that bring harm. Deepening the channel changes the movement and balance of fresh and salt water in a way that will move the salt line up river presenting threats to the oyster populations and drinking water supplies that have been so heavily invested in for our region and are so vitally important.

Contrary to the public claims of Governor Rendell, all of the spoils are going to NJ and DE communities, none of it is planned for Pennsylvania.

For years, agencies and environmental experts relying on sound scientific principles have documented the depth and breadth of the threats that deepening the River poses. The Corps’ data and its findings are often at odds with that of other scientists.

The environmental, health, and safety concerns that have been raised are not those of an uneducated few, as project supporters suggest. Those questioning the project include: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant Program, and more.

The undocumented claims of jobs being made by Governor Rendell for the project have never been demonstrated by him or anyone, and in fact are not even based on jobs from the deepening -- they are jobs that would be created by other port projects Pennsylvania is considering.

By contrast, Deepening the Delaware puts at risk the fish, shellfish, and wildlife that are critical for providing hundreds of millions of dollars of income and jobs. For instance:

  • the oysters that the deepening threatens provides up to $3 million dollars of economic benefit to our region;
  • the horseshoe crabs that the deepening threatens is not only critical for ensuring that vaccines and medical devices are safe for use by humans, but supports a $150 million biomedical industry and is the basis of $34 million of ecotourism income to our region;
  • the commercial and recreational fisheries of our Estuary, Bay and River are another multi-million dollar industry that supports many jobs directly and indirectly.

These jobs, this revenue, and the community economies dependent upon them are vitally important to our region – and they are all put at risk by deepening the Delaware.

Deepening threatens the health of the River and the ecosystems that are vitally important to the economies, communities, culture and beauty of our region.

Maya K. van Rossum
Delaware River Keepers


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