New Jersey's message to Pennsylvania: If you want to deepen the Delaware River, you'll have to pick up the tab, pass our permitting process, and keep the dredged-up spoil on your side.

Oh, and when the environmental groups come after you in court, you're on your own.

That's the essence of an understanding being worked out between the states, according to officials close to the negotiations.

While not budging from his opposition to the dredging, Gov. Corzine would agree to have the project transferred from the Delaware River Port Authority to the Philadelphia Regional Airport Authority, the officials say. The State of New Jersey then would not challenge the project in the courts.

The deal, which could see slight changes over the coming days, is expected to be announced within two weeks.

Yesterday, two dredging opponents, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.) and Jeffrey Nash, vice chairman of the DRPA and a Camden County freeholder, said progress was being made but could not offer details.

"The states are negotiating in good faith, and I am cautiously optimistic that there will be a resolution to the dispute in the near future," Nash said.

Andrews said the "imminent" resolution raises "two immense concerns. The first is that no one in South Jersey's elected leadership is involved in the negotiation. We're not a party and not being kept informed."

"Beyond that, what I have learned about the agreement indicates that both state and federal environmental reviews would be fast-tracked and expedited, and we find that to be unacceptable."

While the deal's language was being worked out, dredging opponents on both sides of the river fumed over what they saw as Corzine's sell-out.

In a letter this week to Corzine and Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, 19 environmental and citizens groups urged the governors to "oppose Pennsylvania's unilateral pursuit" of the dredging and to "continue to oppose the project altogether."

Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Bristol-based advocacy organization centering on the Delaware River watershed, said yesterday that environmental groups "are primed to take legal action when the time is right to stop the deepening project."

"We're looking at legal strategies," she said. "We will absolutely take the step of going to court on a state or federal level."

Van Rossum said the opposition of the environmental community this week was intended as a "push-back to show Gov. Corzine that cutting a deal is politically inept."

New Jersey officials "will spin this, saying, 'We won't have anything to do with the project. We don't support it and won't sponsor or fund it,' " she said. "But is Corzine representing the state and his constituents if he steps aside?

"Is he moving opposition out of the way to allow Pennsylvania to move forward? We see it for what it is. It's cutting a political deal."

For nearly a year and a half, Gov. Rendell, as the DRPA's chairman, has refused to call a board meeting of the agency. He says he will continue to boycott meetings until New Jersey agrees to deepen the river's shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet along a 103-mile stretch. Failure to do so will doom Philadelphia ports to obsolescence, Pennsylvania proponents say.

Opponents in New Jersey say they fear the material dredged from the river bottom may contain environmental hazards. They also question whether the dredging's cost, about $500 million, is worth it for taxpayers.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said yesterday that Corzine might think he can sign off on the deal "because it [dredging] won't happen anyway."

"But like everything else, even though you think something can't happen, sometimes it does," said Tittel, who said his group would join any legal action against the dredging project.

"Do we really need to battle over permits and go to court for the next 10 years when there are so many other important issues?" he said. "We'll prevail, but it will take a lot of work and resources."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.