Delaware River deepening nears long-awaited completion

A 12-year, $392 million project to deepen the Delaware River, allowing bigger and heavier ships to call at Philadelphia ports, is slated for completion in March.

The final hurdle: using what amounts to a gigantic jackhammer to carefully break up rock lodged close to an underwater petroleum pipeline and blasting through and digging out huge pieces of rock resting on the riverbed.

Dredging ship operator Great Lakes Dredge & Dock [NASDAQ: GLDD], which won the contract for the work, has been using its drillboat Apache to break up this “speedbump” that is key to the overall project’s success, and its hydraulic dredge New York to remove the material.

Great Lakes Dredge & Dock’s Apache prepares for blasting in Delaware River Jan. 24. Credit: Tim Boyle/USACE

“We’re hoping to get the blasting portion completed over the next week,” a New York crew member told FreightWaves during a tour of the site on Jan. 24. Dredging was temporarily suspended that day while the vessel’s massive clamshell bucket was under repair. “If we find more rock than we’re expecting, it may take longer. But the best-case scenario for completing the blasting and then getting it all removed is within the next several weeks.”

The project, which began in 2008, has increased the depth of the 103-mile main shipping channel between Philadelphia and the Atlantic Ocean from 40 to 45 feet. The cost is shared 35% by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, known now as PhilaPort, and 65% by the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which oversees the project.

According to USACE and PhilaPort, the extra 5 feet of channel means containers, bulk commodities and automobile shipments will have more efficient access to and from Delaware River ports, which include Philadelphia and the Port of Wilmington, Delaware.

New York‘s clamshell bucket under repair on Jan. 24.
Credit: John Gallagher/FreightWaves

Last year the PhilaPort received a second set of super post-Panamax container cranes that were installed at its Packer Avenue Marine Terminal. In December the terminal opened a containerized auto shipping center with storage for 1,200 vehicles.

“Just knowing we’re in the final stretch, a lot of people are very excited,” Ayanna Williams, PhilaPort’s director of government and public affairs, told FreightWaves. Williams stressed that the deepening is important not only for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, but for Delaware and New Jersey as well. There are over 400 truck- and/or rail-served distribution centers within a 150-mile radius of the port that are expected to benefit from the project. “Allowing for bigger ships and more cargo will also mean more jobs for the region,” she added.

“Bigger ships, but probably more importantly, the same ships at a deeper depth,” Ken Goldberg, deputy district engineer for USACE’s Philadelphia District, told FreightWaves. “Oil ships don’t have to lighter [offload cargo before arriving at the port] as much, and container ships can come in heavier at a deeper draft. It’s obviously very important for Philadelphia to stay competitive — our neighbors [Baltimore and New York] are already at 50 feet. So it’s keeping Philly in business.”

USACE’s Ken Goldberg explains the importance of removing the river’s “speed bump.”

The blasting portion of the project has a significant environmental component as well: protecting endangered species of sturgeon. “There’s a whole process [USACE] has to go through, and they have to consult with the National Marine Fishery Service, which is the expert agency that manages endangered sturgeon,” Harold Brundage, president of Environmental Research and Consulting, told FreightWaves.

USACE contracted with Brundage to develop a conservation program for two species of endangered sturgeon — Atlantic and Shortnose — that could potentially be harmed. The program includes relocating them upriver, dispersing them using sound deterrence, and monitoring tagged fish before and after blasting.

Delaware River’s timeline to a 45′ channel, including recent efforts by Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) and Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA). Credit: PhilaPort