For the second time in two years, the Delaware River Basin Commission on Wednesday approved a plan to build a 1,300-foot-long pier to load tankers at the former DuPont Repauno Works in New Jersey, despite objections from environmentalists who say the facility will accelerate fracking of Pennsylvania shale gas wells.

The DRBC approved an application by Delaware River Partners LLC to build a second wharf on the property, where it is developing the Gibbstown Logistics Center to receive and export several commodities including fuels, automobiles, and bulk cargo. The DRBC’s vote was 4-0, with one abstention.

Most of the objections focused on the owner’s plan to use the wharf to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) manufactured in northern Pennsylvania and transported to the site by trucks or trains. Environmentalists campaigned vigorously to stop the project and barraged four state governors with petitions that said the project would worsen climate change and attract 100-car “bomb trains” carrying dangerous LNG across Philadelphia.

“We are scandalized by the approval of this,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has led the opposition to the plan. She characterized the vote as a “deadly blow” to the Delaware River and vowed to file an appeal in federal court.

Locator map of the former DuPont Repauno Works plant, site of a planned gas terminal on the Delaware River. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
John Duchneskie / Staff
Locator map of the former DuPont Repauno Works plant, site of a planned gas terminal on the Delaware River. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“The DRBC has sold out the basin and sided with the fracking industry,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which was among a coalition of environmental groups that organized the opposition campaign.

The commission, an interstate agency whose job is to manage and protect the Delaware River, said the broader issues of climate change and gas development were beyond the scope of its review, which was based on whether construction of a multiuse seaport complied with the commission’s long-term development plan along the river.

Delaware River Partners said it was pleased to get final approval after “extensive” review by multiple federal, state, and local agencies. “This approval gives us the opportunity to continue to invest in and build new infrastructure that will create jobs and provide economic growth in the State of New Jersey and the surrounding region,” the company said in a statement.

A hearing examiner and the staff of the DRBC had recommended approving permits to dredge the river and to build a pier for the $450 million private port, which is being built on the site of a former DuPont dynamite factory in Greenwich Township. The DuPont facility shut down more than two decades ago, and local officials and labor unions have supported the port as a major economic redevelopment project. The project would create about 300 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs.

The project developer cannot begin work on the dock until it first submits dredging plans to New Jersey environmental regulators at least 60 days in advance, according to its permits. Environmental opponents, meanwhile, say they plan to file a legal challenge of the DRBC’s approval and will seek an injunction putting a hold on work during litigation.

The DRBC in 2017 approved construction of the first dock on the site, and the commission last year voted unanimously to approve the larger second wharf, which will allow larger ships to berth at the site. The second dock also received permits from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said last year’s process did not allow sufficient public input, so the DRBC put its decision on hold and ordered a more thorough review in 2020, including an eight-day hearing in May where 13 expert witnesses appeared.

The hearing officer, John B. Kelly, in July released a 102-page report in which he recommended the commission reaffirm its previous approval for the project. He said restrictions on construction ensured that its impact on water quality and aquatic life “will be localized and transitory.”

The commission’s staff said its review was limited and said that safety concerns about the transportation of LNG by rail or truck were regulated by other agencies. “The commission does not review or approve the cargo that moves through a marine terminal,” the DRBC staff said in a recommendation last year.

The Natural Resources Defense Council last week filed a last-minute request to the commission to delay a vote, saying the project was not in compliance with agreements to limit the discharge of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) left on the site. The issue of PCB contaminations from construction of the port, and dredging for the new wharf, will likely be the subject of an appeal.

The commission’s vote on Wednesday was 4-0, with yes votes from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which represents the federal government. Kenneth Kosinski, the New York state representative, abstained after New York’s motion to delay the vote failed. Kosinski said that the project’s impact on climate change, and its impact on water quality, needed more study.

Gov. Phil Murphy, in an interview with Politico on Tuesday, sent a mixed message that he opposed an LNG facility, but said “port infrastructure is desperately needed” in New Jersey, especially to support the offshore wind industry. One potential use of the Gibbstown port is to serve as a staging area for offshore wind developers.

Jeffrey L. Hoffman, a New Jersey official who represented Murphy at Wednesday’s DRBC meeting, said the state’s vote in favor of the project “is a narrow one.”

LNG is produced by super-cooling natural gas to minus-260 degrees until it turns into a liquid. It must be stored and transported in insulated tanks to keep it liquid. If the tanks leak, LNG can freeze anything it contacts. Safety experts say a greater threat is that the fuel leaks, pools, and turns into a vapor cloud that remains cold and moves at ground level rather than dissipating into the atmosphere. If it comes into contact with an ignition source, the fuel can explode.

New Fortress Energy, a company affiliated with the developers of the Gibbstown Logistics Center, is behind a plan to manufacture LNG at a proposed facility in Wyalusing, Pa., northwest of Scranton, and ship the flammable liquid by road or by rail to Gibbstown. There, it would be loaded directly onto ships and either exported overseas or barged to domestic customers.

New Fortress has not disclosed potential routes for the LNG, but transportation experts and environmentalists say the most likely rail route would follow Norfolk Southern rail lines from Wyalusing through Allentown, Reading, and then move along the Schuylkill before traversing North Philadelphia, and then crossing the Delair Bridge into Pennsauken.

In its filings for a rail permit, New Fortress said it would move several 100-car trains of LNG a day to Gibbstown to continuously fill waiting vessels, or up to 700 tractor-trailer trucks a day. The most direct highway route would follow I-476 through Philadelphia’s suburbs, and then cross the Commodore Barry Bridge into New Jersey.

Local officials have protested the transport of LNG on public highways and rails, saying it presents an unacceptable danger. LNG now routinely moves in tanker trucks on highways, but federal hazardous-materials regulations allowed shipments by rail only with special permits. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) last December approved a special permit for a New Fortress affiliate, Energy Transport Solutions LLC, to haul LNG by rail from Wyalusing to Gibbstown.

The DRBC’s meeting Wednesday was conducted via teleconference because of COVID restrictions, providing spectators with a means to communicate with the commissioners in real time through the chat function. As the proposed resolution was read and then voted on, the public comments in pop-up balloons changed quickly from pleas to vote no, to silent capitalized denunciations of the commission’s action.