TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The Army Corps of Engineers ignored new information about environmental damages in approving a 102-mile-long, $310 million project to dredge the Delaware River all the way up to Philadelphia, six environmental groups say in Federal Court. Deepening the channel from Delaware Bay to Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., “will affect thousands of acres of habitat” for commercially harvested fish, endangered species and candidates for listing, including the Atlantic sturgeon and the world’s largest horseshoe crab spawning area, the environmentalists say.
Delaware Riverkeeper, the National Wildlife Federation and others say the effects of the dredging will reverberate throughout the entire ecosystem, harm seabirds and could hurt the human water supply. They say the Corps of Engineers will violate a slew of environmental laws if it proceeds with dredging, which could begin as early as December.
The much-abused Delaware River, historically “one of the more polluted rivers in the world” according to a 1992 environmental impact statement, has seen drastic declines in fisheries over the past century.
Within its ecosystem are 26 species of “managed” fish, including the winter flounder and black sea bass. Horseshoe crabs, which bring in $34 million regionally and form an important shorebird food source, have declined since 1989.
Aside from the economic benefits of the spawning phenomenon, the crabs’ blood is important for medical testing, the lawsuit adds.
The 1992 environmental impact statement, a 1997 supplement and a 2009 environmental assessment do not adequately consider substantial changes to the scope of the project, according to the complaint. This includes using the “Southport” expansion of the Philadelphia Navy Yard and abandoned mines to dispose of “spoil,” or dredged material.
Deepening of the channel from 40 to 45 feet involves massive amounts of spoil, which will be deposited in upland and aquatic sites, including wetlands.
New information on water quality underscores the need for a new supplemental impact statement, the plaintiffs say. Increased salinity due to encroaching seawater and rising sea levels could affect estuary species and imperil the water supply, the groups claim. Of particular concern is whether the dredging could “nick” the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy Aquifer, introducing pollutants there, as the Army Corps allegedly told communities.
The environmentalists say the Corps of Engineers failed to adequately address impacts of the dredging on threatened and endangered species, including four varieties of sea turtles and the shortnose sturgeon.
The Atlantic sturgeon, a candidate for listing, still lacks a biological opinion despite new information on distribution and evidence indicating population declines, plaintiffs say.
Confined disposal facilities also threaten to leach heavy metals into the water during dredging, the suit adds.
A Government Accountability Office report questioned the economic gain of the project, pointing out Corps of Engineers miscalculations included a $40 million annual gain, when in fact the gain amounted to little more than $13 million.
Plaintiffs, represented by Elizabeth Brown of Bristol, Pa., seek compliance with half a dozen environmental laws, and completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement.