For the thousands of us who depend on the Port of Philadelphia for our livelihood, the controversy surrounding the decision to deepen the Delaware River comes down to this: Without dredging, we're sunk.
The current navigable channel of the river is 40 feet deep. The Army Corps of Engineers recently decided to proceed with plans to deepen the channel to 45 feet. We are talking about just five feet. Yet those five feet make all the difference to the port and the future of the region.
They will allow bigger ships to travel up the Delaware - the types of ships that are most commonly used by the world's biggest shipping lines. With a deeper Delaware, Philadelphia could compete for cargos that now go elsewhere. Shipping companies from around the world are considering partnerships to expand their operations here because of Philadelphia's central location and its top-notch rail and truck connections.
Deepening the river would mean adding thousands of family-sustaining jobs and lowering the cost of goods and products that millions of people throughout the Mid-Atlantic region depend on every day. For these reasons, dredging will be just as beneficial to South Jersey and the Port of Wilmington.
Without dredging, all three states will be left with backwater ports fighting each other for scraps.
New Jersey and Delaware have filed lawsuits to stop dredging, citing environmental concerns, particularly over the disposal of the dredged material, known as "spoils." Yet the environmental studies conducted over the last 20 years conclude that dredging the Delaware is safe. What's more, Pennsylvania has agreed to take all the spoils if New Jersey and Delaware don't want them.
So what's the problem? Is it the impact on river fish and plants? Then why hasn't anyone objected to the dredging that occurs every year to maintain the current depth? As Gov. Rendell pointed out recently, "No one has ever sued" over that dredging. And let's not forget the constant dredging in New York and North Jersey, which takes place without a whimper from environmentalists.
Delaware officials claim the project does not have the necessary state permit. But when the Army Corps applied for it in 2001, Delaware essentially ignored the request for eight long years. Tired of waiting, the Corps cited the federal supremacy of navigable waterways as its justification for moving ahead. Then, after doing nothing for so long, Delaware moved in record time to block the Corps.
Perhaps the opposition has ulterior motives. The Garden State may be trying to protect New York and North Jersey port interests. And there is talk that Delaware wants to create its own deepwater port, which would be more likely to succeed without competition from Philadelphia.
I don't know what the opposition's real reasons are, but I do know that deepening the Delaware is vital to the future of the Port of Philadelphia. Without it, the prospects for the port's economic growth and really good jobs are dead in the water. Dredging opponents need to explain why that's a better course for the region.