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Dredging In New York Harbor -- Economy vs. Environment?

by Pat Arnow, Apr 18, 2006
 

When the Queen Mary 2, the largest cruise ship in the world, docked in Brooklyn for a day earlier this month, it marked the official opening of the newest cruise ship facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The terminal will create hundreds of new jobs and attract millions of passengers –- and they owe it all to dredging.

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The city had spent millions of dollars to dig a deeper channel. They felt they had no choice. As the size of ships have grown, so too has the demand to accommodate them. Indeed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the government agency that does the dredging, is in the midst of the largest New York Harbor dredging project since World War II.

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But there is another demand growing as well –- that the environment be protected in the process. The latest step in a lawsuit that has been dragging through the courts could lead eventually to an agreement that will prevent further contamination of already-polluted waters. Environmental groups want the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a meaningful plan to clean up as well as dredge. The corps responds that they are doing just that.

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Ever And Ever Deeper

Dredging to make way for seafaring trade has been ongoing for much of the history of the New York Harbor, but in recent years, the pace and depth has picked up, with the dredgers not just scooping out silt and sand but blasting away bedrock as well.

In the 1980s, ships carrying a thousand boxes full of cargo, each of which would fit on the back of a truck, could fit down channels that had been dug to 35 feet deep in New York Harbor. But then the container ships quadrupled in size. The steroidal growth didn't stop with "Panamax" vessels, so called because they were the largest ships that could fit through the Panama Canal.

Shippers started bringing the clothes and cars and computers from around the world through the deeper Suez Canal with even bigger "Post-Panamax" ships. The U.S. Army Corps on Engineers recently finished dredging channels as deep as 45 feet to accommodate them.

As soon as that was done, the corps began planning 50 foot channels that will cost $1.6 billion to make way for gargantuan "Post-Panamax Plus" ships that bring as many as 7,000 to 8,000 containers to the New York and New Jersey terminals.

Polluted Waters

All this dredging is complicated by some terrible contamination of the waterways. A factory up river in New Jersey that manufactured Agent Orange to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War spilled toxic dioxins into two of the channels between Staten Island and New Jersey, the Kill van Kull and the Arthur Kill.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is testing levels of pollution and methods of cleanup in the channels. Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, NY/NJ Baykeeper and Green Faith charge that the latest dredging operation interferes with the EPA's ability to make accurate assessments and cleanup plans. The groups also doubt the Corps' commitment to cleanup. In fact, they brought a lawsuit in early 2005 to force the Corps to provide a more complete analysis and plan. They asked for an injunction to stall the dredging until the studies could be done.

That is not what they got. In a March 2006 decision, the court imposed no injunction, but the corps did receive a strongly worded directive. U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin found -- as she had in an earlier ruling--that the corps had failed to present plans for an accurate assessment. She sent them back once again to get more and better information.

"The Corps must consider the issues that were inadequately addressed in its final Environmental Assessment, including alternatives to the projects and mitigation measures. The Corps should also take affirmative steps to ensure that its review is objective and made in good faith," Judge Scheindlin wrote(in pdf format).

They have four months to create the new report.

"What we'd like to see happen is that the corps approach this not just as a navigation dredging project, but as an environmental cleanup," says Larry Levine, Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney. The corps can "use the dredges that are out there to dig up the contaminated sediment in a safe way that achieves the cleanup of the channels rather than stirring stuff up and moving it around the harbor." What they are doing now just uncovers contaminated material and leaves it exposed, he says. "The environment isn't a side consideration that has to be dealt with as a nuisance."

Even though the judge didn't enter an injunction as requested, it feels like victory to Levine. "In a practical matter, they can't go forward with the next stage of the deepening until they get their house in order."

An official for the Army Corps of Engineers seems unfazed by the court, however. "Dredging was not halted," says William Slezak, Chief of Harbor Programs Branch. The corps will use existing information and newly available data from the Environmental Protection Agency to put together additional models for the court. They are not collecting new samples. The consultants who have been hired to do the report are engineers, chemists and biologists, he says.

Slezak feels confident that what the corps is doing is adequate and will actually benefit the environment. He explains that most of the dredged material in their massive operations is free of contamination. Dredged material, including rock from debris created from blasting bedrock, goes into the ocean, creating fishing reefs. He is reassuring about what happens to the polluted sand and silt. Some of the contaminated material can be combined with cement to create a material that is stable and will not leach contaminant. That is used in such projects as capping landfills. High temperatures or washing are ways to deal with the more contaminated materials. Clamshell dredges -— big scoopers that pull sediment from the bottom of the estuary -- usually have open tops, but when there are contaminants, the clamshell is covered so that it doesn't spill materials over the sides. Furthermore, the channels that are being dredged are not in the Superfund site. That's upstream, he says.

Environmental groups are not confident that the corps' plans are adequate or that they are actually committed to cleanup as well as channel digging. "The Army Corps is notoriously bad on environmental issues," says Levine. The environment takes a back seat when it comes to economic considerations. "They're told by Congress, 'Here's a couple billion dollars, go dig these channels."

Politics

While the corps' Slezak says that the environmental concerns are important, he acknowledges that Congress is most interested in the economic benefits of getting more business to the ports. When the container ships began to grow and need deeper channels, Halifax, with its naturally deep bay, tried to line up business. Baltimore was interested, too. The only way to maintain the largest port facility on the East Coast -- the third largest in the nation, which generates 230,000 jobs regionally -— was to deepen the channels.

It doesn't matter which party is in power, Republicans or Democrats, the New York/New Jersey ports get their funding. The expense of Hurricane Katrina affected Corps projects elsewhere in the nation, but not the New York Harbor, says Slezak. Even the environmentalist Larry Levine supports the deep channels for the harbor.

The only issue for everyone concerned with the dredging is whether the Army Corps of Engineers will make the effort to keep contaminants from swirling around and adding to the considerable pollution already there Even Slezak would not eat the fish from these waters. It is not just the dioxins that make the water hazardous. This is a long-term problem generated by years of industrial pollution. It remains to be seen whether the Army Corps of Engineers dredging operations will make it better or worse.

 


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