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The New Haven Port Authority wants to deepen New Haven Harbor’s main commercial channel. But, given environmental concerns and political hurdles, the project is undergoing a long and arduous review process.

Since 1950, when the existing channel was created, commercial vessels have increased in size, and the channel’s 35-foot depth no longer accommodates large cargo ships such as oil tankers and road-salt carriers. The harbor’s lack of accessibility is costing the city potential economic gain of a more navigable port. As a result, at the request of the New Haven and Connecticut port authorities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study on the environmental, economic and logistical feasibility of dredging the channel into the New Haven Harbor.

“The current depth results in navigation inefficiencies,” said Barbara Blumeris, project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Without deepening the channel and fixing these inefficiencies, transporting cargo by large ship to New Haven’s port “won’t remain economically viable,” she added.

As an alternative to docking and unloading at the harbor, some cargo vessels are forced either to wait until high tide rolls in or to anchor outside the harbor’s breakwaters and unload their freight onto barges, which have shallower hulls and can successfully reach the terminals in the harbor.

This process — called lightering — is economically disadvantageous, according to Joe Salvatore, project manager at the Connecticut Port Authority.

“The more times you handle cargo, the more expensive it is,” Salvatore said.

In addition to the economic downside of unloading goods at a deep-water anchor, there is an environmental risk.

According to Salvatore, an oil spill is more likely to occur and cause extensive damage at the offshore unloading site than at the port. Tankers that anchor outside New Haven Harbor take extra precautions, Salvatore said. But deepening the channel and giving the tankers access to the port would reduce the likelihood of an ecologically harmful spill.

Still, some New Haven residents have reservations about dredging the harbor. At a public information hearing on Jan. 10, the New Haven Independent reported that several residents voiced concerns that dredged material would be contaminated with petroleum or other chemicals, which could cause environmental damage once dug up and dumped elsewhere.

But both Blumeris and Salvatore said an extensive environmental review process should allay any anxiety about possible environmentally harmful effects of dredging. The plan must go through both state and federal environmental reviews.

Salvatore said any material deemed environmentally unsuitable would not be dredged.

“We won’t touch it,” he said.

Dredging also presents an opportunity for environmental restoration.

Both Blumeris and Salvatore said the dredged-up material could be used to nourish beaches, create marshes and establish new shellfish beds and oyster habitats, all of which would have beneficial effects on the fragile coastal environment.

Bill Lucey, Long Island soundkeeper at Save the Sound, also noted the potentially positive effects clean dredged material could have on the shoreline ecosystem.

“Save the Sound recognizes the need for occasional dredging to maintain port function and recreational access to the Sound,” Lucey wrote in an email to the News. “Sediment must be properly tested in accordance with federal and state rules, and wherever possible we support using sufficiently clean dredge material to rebuild beaches, dunes and coastal marshes.”

Later this spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release a draft of its study, which will include an evaluation of extensive samples of dredged material. Once the Corps finishes the study, there will be a period of public review, including open hearings. If all goes according to plan, the Army Corps will make recommendation to Congress in the fall of 2019 to move forward with the project.

Depending on how quickly the project is approved and how much federal funding is allocated, construction likely will not begin until 2022 or 2023.

Approximately 10 million tons of cargo are unloaded at New Haven’s port each year, making it the 53rd largest port in the United States by cargo volume.

Max Graham | max.m.graham@yale.edu