Issue of the Week
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Harbor Dredging

09 July 01

by Michael Burger

A large dredge in Newark Bay's Port Elizabeth Channel grabs jaws full of black muck from the water's bottom and carefully dumps the gunk onto a barge. This mud is some of the most contaminated material in New York and New Jersey Harbor.

"This is the mud everybody's concerned about," says Joe Seebode, a former regulatory chief in the Army Corps of Civil Engineers, who came to New York a year ago to work on the harbor.

The muck is laced with pollutants from the Diamond Alkaline plant up the Passaic River, where the chemicals for Agent Orange were once manufactured, and with PCBs that have floated down the Hudson River from two General Electric plants upstate. Overall the channel bottom hosts a mixture of heavy metals, garbage, ash, sewage and toxic sludge.

While stirring up such a lethal brew clearly poses dangers, almost all experts agree that the dredging of the harbor is essential to the future of New York's shipping industry. The harbor must be made deeper to accommodate the large ships that come into port stacked with thousands of shipping containers full of things like salt, scrap metal, orange juice, cheese, cars, and bottles of wine.

Shipping and related activities in the harbor employ about 180,000 people and account for about 2 percent of the gross regional product. For the port to remain an economic force, the shipping channels have to be deeper.

But one question confronting Seebode and the region has long stumped planners, politicians, and environmentalists: Where can they put all that gunk?


Despite the environmental and economic importance of this question, dredging has not been a major issue in the metropolitan area. It has received far more attention farther up the Hudson. There the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year ordered General Electric to clean up the nation's largest toxic waste site.

For 30 years, General Electric dumped into the river about 200,000 tons of PCBs--a toxin once used in electrical transformers that is known to cause cancer in animals and linked to reproductive problems, neurological problems, and cancer in humans. General Electric opposes dredging the Hudson, maintaining, first, that there is not enough proof that PCBs are harmful, and second, that the river is cleaning itself. Dredging the Hudson would cost an estimated $460 million. The Bush administration will decide in the next month whether to order General Electric to follow through.


Dredging began in the mid-1800s, when vessels with deeper hulls necessitated the deepening of the Gedney and Ambrose Channels at the harbor entrance. For a century almost all dredged material was deposited in the unceremoniously named "Mud Dump" off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The stuff was never tested.

"That was our Fresh Kills in the water," explains Carter Craft, program director at the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Eventually environmentalists and shore residents became concerned about the contaminants' impact on marine life. In 1997, the dump, which had already been largely inactive for five years, was renamed the Historic Area Remediation Site and started accepting only the cleanest material dredged from the harbor.

The Mud Dump's closing has left the Army Corps, New York and New Jersey scrambling to find both short and long-term placements for the material. "We1d been relying on the Mud Dump for so long, we do not have any alternatives," says Craft.

But, here in New York City, where the port generates an estimated $29 billion a year, nobody is arguing against dredging. It seems to be an economic necessity.

More oil comes through the New York and New Jersey harbor than through any other port in the country. More automobiles are shipped through here than any other port in the Northeast. The shipping terminals that line the waterfront handle the second largest amount of total cargo in the nation. The harbor is also a primary stopover for scrap metal and consumer products from around the world, both coming in from and going out to sea.

As the international shipping industry consolidates with fewer companies using bigger ships, pressure to stave off competition from ports in Halifax and Baltimore and secure the New York's position as the number one hub in the Northeast is increasing. The post-Panamax super-container ships (so named because they are too big to pass through the Panama Canal) need harbor channels a minimum of 45 feet deep and will eventually require 50 feet. New York area channels average about 35 to 40 feet deep.

The Army Corps, the Port Authority and others will have to deepen and maintain the 240 miles of federal channels and more than 1 million linear feet of parking space for ships in the harbor. In the next ten years, this means dredging enough material to fill 50 World Trade Center towers, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.


As with many kinds of contaminated material, from toxic waste to residential trash, the most pressing question with the dredged muck is what to do with it.

The Army Corps, Port Authority and other city and state agencies have looked at a host of options, including dumping it in the ocean, burying it in pits dug into the harbor bottom and capped with clean sands, creating islands of contaminants on a variety of waterways, and reusing the materials on land.

Most options have been ruled out due to high costs, permitting requirements and the volume of the dredged material.

In the mid-1990s, some of the material was trucked to Utah at an absurd cost of $118 a cubic yard. (Dumping it locally without testing costs $4 to $6 a cubic yard.) Current costs average about $50-60.

But thoughts have changed since then. "The decision has been made to use material beneficially whenever possible," says Bryce Wisemiller, the harbor dredging program director at the Army Corps.

Dredged material includes sands, clay and rock and the level of pollution varies. How clean the material has to be depends upon how it will be used. Wisemiller says, "Generally speaking, different contaminants carry different risks, and different uses demand different standards. "To use something for a beach, you ask: Is it sand? In open water you ask: Will it make it into the food chain? Will it have an adverse affect? For brownfields, you look at the leachate, and ask: Will it get into the groundwater?"

In one instance, diabase rock, a clean, hard rock, dug up in black chunks, is being blasted and mined from the area in the Kill van Kull Channel around the Bayonne Bridge and then used to build underwater reefs off Atlantic Beach and Sandy Hook.

In another instance, the parking lot of the Jersey Gardens Mall near Newark Airport, a former brownfield, has been paved using a mixture of dredged sediments and concrete.

As he surveys the industrial scene off the Bayonne Peninsula, Joe Seebode beams at the efficiency with which the muck being pulled from the Port Elizabeth Channel is being processed into concrete and used to cover the Bayonne Landfill. Eventually, the dump will be capped, laid with topsoil and converted into a golf course.

In perhaps the most promising experiment, the New York/New Jersey Clean Ocean and Shore Trust has been mixing decontaminated dredged material with fly ash -- a byproduct of coal -- and cement to fill abandoned mines in Pennsylvania.

Andrew Voros, who founded the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Demonstration Project, says there are over 560,000 abandoned mines in the U.S., more than over 9,000 in Pennsylvania alone, and that it will take the equivalent of 5,000 World Trade Center towers worth of mud to fill them.

Pennsylvania's abandoned mines could handle all of New York harbor's dredged material and more. Filling the mines would also help put out underground coal fires, prevent collapsing mines, and keep acid mine drainage from leaking into the water.

Pennsylvania has "800 incidences each year of mine collapses that transfer up to the surface," says Voros. "There are 45 mine fires burning today. And that's all minor compared to the 3,000 miles of Pennsylvania rivers and streams impacted by acid mine drainage that run acidic and bright orange."

Many of those involved in disposal are looking to the mine reclamation project with hopeful eyes. Yet, concern over contaminants working their way back into the free-flowing environment persists, as it does in every potential use.

For all the experimentation, the city and region are still without a definite plan for where to put all the dredged material, but the Pennsylvania mines seem one of the best bets.

"The dredging issue was recognized as a crisis eight years ago," says Voros. "After hundreds of millions have been spent we are not significantly closer to a large-scale option, other than the Pennsylvania mines."


The ultimate goal of all this dredging, many say, is to help make New York a bigger port serving the entire East Coast rather than just the tri-state area.

But dredging alone will not accomplish this. Deeper channels for bigger ships also mean bigger and stronger rails to handle the larger containers passing through, and possibly more roads to handle more trucks.

"We have to think through how the navigation system fits with the terminal fits with the distribution system, so that each one is efficient and minimizes problems, whether it be congestion, air pollution or energy use," says Tom Wakefield of the Port Authority.

In the meantime, though, the stuff pulled from the bottom has to go somewhere.



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