…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…
Author: Tara Nurin
"The South Jersey ports are a main contributor to air pollution in the South Jersey/Philadelphia region," warns Doug O'Malley, the field director for the advocacy group Environment New Jersey. He says Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties are "out of attainment with the [Environmental Protection Agency] for soot pollution, and soot pollution is honestly the most deadly form of air pollution out there. It's directly linked to cancer. It's directly linked to aggravating asthma, heart disease and heart attacks."
"If you talk anecdotally to teachers or nurses in schools, they'll tell you that 25 percent of the kids in Waterfront South have asthma," cautions Olga Pomar, an attorney with South Jersey Legal Services who represents clients from Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood. Waterfront South is a tiny enclave of impoverished homes that's buried deep within the port area and imprisoned by heavy industry on all four sides. Some of its 1,700 residents are suing their industrial neighbors over the pollution they emit.
"People in Waterfront South and most of Camden have elevated lung cancer rates, and overall, Camden has high lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreas, liver and kidney cancer vis a vis the rest of New Jersey," Pomar says.
While Pomar doesn't blame the port and its surrounding businesses for the entirety of Camden's poor health, she does feel strongly that the port "really has a major detrimental impact on quality of life." Pomar suggests the SJPC could mitigate some of the damage by following the path of some North Jersey ports that are looking to implement new environmental regulations pioneered in Southern California. There, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have just announced a plan to eventually ban all but the newest, most clean-driving diesel trucks. And California Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced federal legislation that would keep any large commercial or recreational vessel that doesn't significantly reduce its soot-causing sulfur emissions out of American ports.
But the SJPC counters that Camden ports are appropriately eco-friendly by pointing to several new initiatives, including modern electric cranes; retrofitted machinery to reduce emissions; tree-lined environmental berms that act as buffer zones between the port and residential areas; not to mention a stated objective to carry more cargo to nearby destinations via lower-emission boats rather than dirty trucks.
But greening every aspect of the terminals can't save the region's environment from an incredibly controversial potential eco-disaster that's coming up the river. The true enemy of life along the Delaware, warn environmentalists, is a recently approved project to dredge the river to allow for larger, more profitable ships to enter Philadelphia and South Jersey ports.
"It threatens drinking water supplies; it threatens the aquifer that runs below the river; it threatens horseshoe crab populations, oyster populations. Many of the creatures that depend upon the river—their habitat will be destroyed in this process," cries Sharon Finlayson, chair of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.
Finlayson and other New Jersey environmentalists furiously accuse Gov. Jon Corzine of caving to pressure by his gubernatorial counterpart in Pennsylvania, who, after many years, finally persuaded New Jersey's executive officer to allow the river channel to be deepened by five feet. This past May, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell announced victory for his dredging agenda, which he and the Philadelphia trade unions insist will create high-paying jobs (with some in New Jersey) and allow Delaware River ports to compete with others for the heftier ships that are increasingly favored on the high seas.
Although the deepening project has long been opposed by politicians on this side of the river primarily for environmental reasons, New Jersey port operators say dredging the Delaware River will actually benefit them just as much as those in Pennsylvania.
"South Jersey ports will also be able to bring in not just bigger ships but ships that carry more cargo," says SJPC executive director and CEO Joseph Balzano. "You're always competing with other port facilities for ships. If they're going to increase the depth of the other port facilities, in order to compete we've got to have it here," agrees Holt's head of security, Robert Fair.
Gloucester's leadership too believes that meeting the demands of tomorrow's shipping industry is a necessary component of their dreams to ensure a viable and thriving future for their city. Like the river, the tides of economies are cyclical, and Gloucester's political captains are investing in the notion that drawing inspiration from its ship-dominated past can provide a business model for its resuscitated destiny. Although the days of the old-fashioned wooden sailboats and the steamboats that carried goods to and from New Jersey are long gone, they hope to be ready to greet the mammoth steel-hulled freightliners carrying many tons of cargo that can help ensure the city's economic vitality. It's only with the foresight and ability to address the current and future realities of the shipping industry that they can safely envision dollar signs and renewed glory for Gloucester, heralded by a day when visitors will flock to watch their residents at work at the ports and reflect on a South Jersey waterfront yet again enhanced by commercial ships navigating up and down the Delaware River.
Like Mayor William James muses, "The port has been good to us. And hopefully the water will continue to be good to us."