The bitterly contested deepening of the Delaware River's shipping channel officially began at noon yesterday, in water near Delaware City, Del.
No fanfare marked the moment, no fireworks or ribbon-cutting.
To most observers, digging five feet deeper might have been indistinguishable from the routine maintenance dredging that has been going on for several weeks in that stretch of river, to keep the channel at its current 40-foot depth. But supporters and opponents of the controversial project seized the occasion to launch dueling media blitzes.
Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), who in 1983 introduced the initial legislation to deepen the river ports to 45 feet, heralded the start of the 102.5-mile dredging in a conference call.
Yesterday, he said, he introduced a bill to amend the federal Mining Control and Reclamation Act so that federal funds may be used to transport dredge material taken from the river, after drying at federal sites, to abandoned coal mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania, including Hazleton.
Dredging opponents - led by Gov. Christie, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), and New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) - stood next to the river at Red Bank Battlefield in Gloucester County and vowed to use every resource possible in the courts and in Congress to halt the six-year project.
"It makes no sense economically. It is dangerous environmentally," said Christie, joined by Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum and representatives of other environmental groups.
"There is no reason why, for a project that will have no positive effect on the economy for the state of New Jersey, that New Jersey should wind up being the repository for the dredge spoils that are going to be created," he said. "I simply don't buy the argument from the oil industry that this is going to be helpful to the economic situation in our region."
Andrews said he would battle to hold up future federal funding, and noted that President Obama's proposed spending plan for the coming fiscal year contained "zero dollars" for the dredging.
"We are going to work with our congressional delegation to keep it that way," Andrews said. "No earmarks, no additions, no pork projects going in for this."
Specter, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called it "customary" for the president's budget to lack funds for not-yet-started public-works projects.
"We will get whatever additional funding is needed," he said. "This program has the support of the administration. It has the support of the Department of Defense."