Groups Criticize Dredge Dumping Opponents Of The Delaware River Project Say It Poses Numerous Risks. The Issue Also Is Part Of A Lawsuit.

Posted: November 03, 2000

WOODBURY — Several state environmental groups and local physicians denounced the Delaware River dredging project and chastised politicians who supported it Wednesday during the last freeholder meeting before Election Day.

The Delaware River Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers plan to deepen the river channel from 40 feet to 45 feet to accommodate larger ships at a cost of $311 million.

Supporters say the move would protect 54,000 jobs linked to maritime commerce. Opponents say contaminants in the 33 million cubic yards of river-bottom soil would render land at dump sites unusable.

Whether Gloucester County municipalities should accept the material has become an incendiary political topic this season. Yesterday, the battle escalated when Republicans filed a defamation suit against the Democrats in an effort to force them to retract a campaign commercial that refers to the dredge debate.

Speaking in the public portion of Wednesday's meeting, representatives from the Sierra Club, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said Republican literature was incorrect when it stated that the dredge material contained no toxic substances.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Maya K. Van Rossum, a spokeswoman from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, in an interview after the meeting. "No one should be quoting anyone who says this stuff is safe."

The groups took issue with a sampling test the Army Corps used in determining contaminant levels in dredge spoil. The agency used an average of several samples, a method that the groups said cannot accurately gauge the material's impact on humans, wildlife and waterways.

"If you have a fever on Sunday of 105 degrees, then for the next three weeks it is normal, when you average it out the temperature will appear normal," said Jane Nagoki, a spokeswoman from the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "But that shouldn't hide the fact that one day you were very sick."

Studies from the Army Corps and the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that if any contaminants existed in the river-bottom material, the levels would be too low to affect humans or wildlife.

"It all comes down to a numbers game," Nagoki said. "There is a disagreement between what they call safe levels and what point the dredge really could have an effect on marine and human life."

About 23 million cubic yards of sediment are expected to be deposited in New Jersey in the next two years. Joe Diemer, a spokesman from the DRPA, said the authority was investigating ways to make the material marketable in an attempt to cut down the amount that would be dumped. His agency also was looking into using the material to build recreation sites like the one in Palmyra Cove, he said.

Nearly all of Gloucester County's 24 municipalities have passed resolutions against accepting dredge material, and the county Democratic Party publicly denounced the project. County Republicans have said townships should accept dredge material only if it was clean, if they accepted it voluntarily, and if they were compensated.

The bitter fight intensified when GOP freeholder candidate Harry Kennedy filed a civil suit in Gloucester County Superior Court alleging that the county Democratic committee slandered him in a political commercial on local network and cable stations. The commercial's theme was dredge dumping.

A Superior Court judge denied a separate motion yesterday to compel the committee to withdraw its commercial. The commercial will run for several more days, Democratic Party Chairman Michael Angelini said.

"This is nothing more than a Hail Mary pass to the quarterback in the end zone with seconds to go," he said. "It's a bogus and frivolous lawsuit."

Erika Hobbs' e-mail address is ehobbs@phillynews.com

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