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U.S. judges asked to halt Delaware River dredging

PHILADELPHIA — A U.S. appeals court was asked to shut down a $360 million dredging project on the Delaware River amid concerns from environmentalists and the state of New Jersey.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is deepening the river from 40 to 45 feet to accommodate larger commercial ships expected to reach U.S. shores with the expansion of the Panama Canal. The Port of Baltimore and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have deepened their shipping channels in recent years.

Port officials in Philadelphia say the Delaware Bay project is needed to stay competitive and keep vital jobs in the area. Work to dredge the 103-mile stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Philadelphia began in late 2010.

Environmentalists fear the sediment being stirred up could be toxic, polluting the river and harming the fish population. Opponents also say the Corps failed to get required permits and public comments.

The need for state and federal permits comes down to the unresolved question of whether the Army Corps is merely “maintaining navigation” — which does not require permits — or changing the river to boost commerce.

Jane P. Davenport, a senior lawyer for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told the judges that maintaining navigation means removing obstacles from the shipping channel. The miles of sediment being removed are heading to landfills.

But Justice Department lawyer Mark R. Haag, representing the Army Corps, argued that keeping the river navigable in the 21st century means making it deep enough for large commercial vessels.

The project has been on the drawing boards since the late 1970s, and authorized by Congress in 1992. The work was stymied from 2003 to 2008 by Delaware’s inaction on permit requests, the judges said. The Corps then decided to move forward without the permits.

“In that context, it’s entirely reasonable for the Corps to say ‘Enough is enough,'” Haag said.

Delaware no longer opposes the project, which port officials in Philadelphia and leaders in Pennsylvania have championed. Sen. Robert Casey, D.-Pa., and others have been pushing for continued funding of the project.

“There are approximately 250,000 people out of work in the region, and this project will mean jobs both in the short term and in the long term,” Casey told the Associated Press this week.

The work is being done in five sections. Work on two middle sections is under way, and the northernmost section, in Philadelphia, is set to start this summer. The final two sections border Delaware.

The three-judge panel did not indicate when it would rule.