The long-running battle over plans to deepen the shipping channel in the Delaware River appears to be inching closer to an end despite last-minute objections from officials in New Jersey and Delaware.
After more than a decade of dispute, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin dredging the river as early as January or February. The work would begin even though environmental regulators in Delaware have yet to sign off on the plan, and the governors in New Jersey and Delaware threatened this week to take steps to block the dredging.
It's unclear how much the latest fight is centered on politics. Gov. Corzine is in a tight reelection battle and may be looking to maintain support from South Jersey voters opposed to the dredging. Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) is locked in his own reelection fight, yet he backs the project and lobbied the White House for its support.
The confusing politics only complicates the long-standing dispute over the environmental impact of the dredging versus the anticipated economic benefits from more port activity. What's more, there's the estimated $379 million cost to taxpayers to do the dredging.
Gov. Rendell and other top elected officials in Pennsylvania support the project. But officials in New Jersey and Delaware continue to raise questions.
Despite the lack of a permit from Delaware, Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy agreed last week to go forward with the dredging.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said he remains ready to take the necessary action to ensure the Army Corps gets a permit from the First State. Meanwhile, Corzine ordered his attorney general to prepare a lawsuit to "stop this irresponsible move."
Delaware denied a permit for the work in July - six years after the Army applied for it. Delaware environmental officials contended that the scope of the project had changed. If so, Delaware's own bureaucracy shared the blame for sitting on the request for years.
In moving this important project forward without Delaware's approval, Darcy cited a doctrine of "federal supremacy" that empowers the Army to safeguard interstate navigation.
Backers of the plan are right: The river deepening is crucial to keeping the Delaware River ports competitive at a time when longshoreman jobs already are in short supply due to the drop in all freight traffic amid the recession.
The dredged dirt, sand, and muck will be trucked to abandoned coal mines in northeastern Pennsylvania, addressing the primary environmental concern.
Rendell pledges that Delaware officials will share oversight of the dredging. That will enable joint monitoring of the project's effect on the aquatic life and drinking water. But it's troubling that the three states at this late date still aren't on the same page.