Political mud being slung in Pennsylvania, New Jersey dredging battle
WASHINGTON – For more than 15 years, New Jersey and Pennsylvania officials have quarreled quietly over whether to make a 103-mile stretch of the Delaware River five feet deeper so larger ships can sail into the port of Philadelphia.That simmering dispute has now boiled over and flowed downstream into the nation’s capital.Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has threatened to block any federal legislation that benefits New Jersey if the state continues to oppose the project. Pennsylvania’s governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, said he would stop commuter trains from running into his state.”New Jersey is playing politics and from what I’m sensing is that they are using the fact that we both jointly share this river, and they are blocking our ability to compete,” Santorum said in an interview. “It’s just unconscionable to block an economic opportunity for the entire Delaware Valley region.”New Jersey lawmakers are unswayed.”Sen. Santorum may be able to put a hold on legislation, but so can I, and I don’t think that’s the way to proceed,” said newly sworn-in Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.Santorum and Rendell say Pennsylvania’s economic health is at stake. They contend if the project is not started soon, the port of Philadelphia would not be able to compete with other eastern seaboard ports and could lose business.They note that New Jersey readily agreed to dredge the huge port it shares with its other neighbor state, New York. That port, one of the world’s busiest, is being deepened from 45 to 50 feet.New Jersey lawmakers say the dredging project is economically and environmentally unsound. They point out that part of the plan is to dump the muck dredged from the river into New Jersey. Rendell recently said his state will take up to 75 percent of the dredge; New Jerseyans question whether he’ll keep that promise – and they don’t want to accept the remaining 25 percent.Plus, deepening the 40-foot channel to 45 feet would cost about $300 million and take about five years to complete.Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., cites a report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office that for every dollar spent on the project, taxpayers would reap only about 46 cents.”The GAO has never altered its position on this and we think they’re right,” said Andrews, whose district lies across the river from Philadelphia.Water battles between neighboring states are nothing new. In 2003, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Virginia did not need Maryland’s permission to draw water from the Potomac River.New Jersey has had its share of border fights. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court appointed a special master to look into whether New Jersey can help energy giant BP build a liquefied natural gas plant on its side of the Delaware River. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the majority of Ellis Island, the historic gateway into America for millions of immigrants, belongs to New Jersey, not New York.Politics adds fuel to such feuds. Both Santorum and Rendell face tough re-election battles this year and are eager to come across to voters as “campaigning to protect the home turf, protecting home state interests,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.”There’s a theory in international relations that if things are not going well in your state you can divert attention by creating an enemy,” said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “So playing up a state rivalry, the us-against-them ploy, becomes popular.”Congress authorized the project in 1991 and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman backed it in 1999. But Garden State lawmakers have had a change of heart since then, and have not signed onto key permits or paying for their share of the project.Santorum and Rendell hope that New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine – sworn in less than a month ago – can broker a compromise to keep the matter out of the courts. Corzine, a former Democratic U.S. senator, is a good friend of Rendell’s and gets along with Santorum.Corzine has pledged to look into the matter. But even if New Jersey and Pennsylvania agree to proceed with the project, there’s still one more factor to consider:Delaware officials have yet to weigh in.