Balancing economic and environmental concerns, a federal judge has sided with backers of a project to deepen the Delaware River and benefit importers at the Port of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia port dredging project gets green light

Doug Ohlemeier

A federal judge has sided with backers of a project to deepen the Delaware River and benefit importers at the Port of Philadelphia.

On Jan. 27, Judge Sue Robinson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware refused to block the dredging of the Delaware River to 45 feet.

A $379 million project has proposed deepening the Delaware River’s main shipping channel from 40 feet to 45 feet from Philadelphia Harbor and Beckett Street Terminal, Camden, N.J., 102 miles south to the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

In her decision, the judge ruled the project could proceed but that the court expects the Army Corps of Engineers to work closely with affected states in future stages of the project, according to a news release.

“The public holds a vested interest in the nation's environmental preservation efforts,” the judge wrote in her opinion but said “the public holds an equally compelling stake in the continued economic vitality of the Delaware River ports … Congress has made the determination that it is in the public interest to proceed with the Deepening Project.”

In April 2009, the corps released an environmental assessment that concluded the proposed deepening project would have “no significant adverse environmental effects.”

Produce importers said the project is long overdue and that the improvements should make for a busier port.

“Today’s decision is great news for the tens of thousands of families whose livelihoods depend on Philadelphia area ports and for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey who will reap the economic benefits of the deepening,” John Estey, chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, said in a news release.

“We look forward to moving quickly to begin the project, protect current jobs and, hopefully, foster the creation of new ones.”

The port authority noted that other ports such as those in Baltimore and New York/New Jersey have already either started or have completed deepening projects.   

The Port of Baltimore recently announced a private sector investment of $750 million after a deepening project there.  

If the Philadelphia port deepening project is blocked, the port authority says area ports will be at a competitive disadvantage.

The project traces its roots to 1983, when the U.S. Congress directed the Army Corps to study modifying the existing main shipping channel. A feasibility study with numerous environmental and economic studies commenced in 1987 and Congress in 1992 authorized the project.

Environmental groups have fought the expansion for years.

The port authority is the lead local sponsor of the project.