The Delaware River, the longest un-dammed and only remaining major free-flowing river east of the Mississippi also lay claim to the largest freshwater port in the world. The river flowed three hundred and thirty miles from Hancock, New York and made a pit stop in the Delaware Bay before spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean. It served as the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey and serviced twenty million residents of the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia-area with drinking water. Washington’s famous Christmas Eve ping-ponging across the Delaware began and ended on the banks of the river at Trenton, New Jersey. But the river’s abundance wasn’t limited to battles, boundary lines and the provision of potable water. She was a dichotomy in uses: heavy industry drew on her for its needs as did bald eagles and world class trout fisheries. As evidence of the latter, about one hundred and fifty miles of this magnificent river has been included in the U.S. National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
In the late 1800’s, approximately one million Philadelphians lived within the boundaries of America’s third largest city which boasted the second largest port in the country located in the Delaware Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with assuring the river’s safety, dipped its long, federally-funded fingers into a bevy of construction, flood control, and navigational projects designed to improve, among other things, the river’s navigability. In 1878, before Philadelphia had electricity or the telephone, sixteen hundred foreign trade vessels arrived a year, and six thousand coastal trade vessels docked in the river’s port. Trade vessels gave way to supertankers: today seventy million tons of cargo arrive in the river’s waters each year. From sails, to steam, to the supertankers, the Delaware River and its Bay have lent their banks and waters to the growth of the interstate and international commerce of not only Philadelphia, but the nation.
At its deepest point, the Delaware was only forty feet deep which meant the river couldn’t abide a thousand foot supertanker between her banks. Roughly the size of three and a half football fields and bearing three million gallons of oil or other cargo, a ship of that size would have forty foot drafts, the depth which the boat sits below the water line, and in the Delaware’s case, deep as her most navigable channels. Low tide, which causes the water levels in the tidally influenced channel from the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia to drop as much as eight feet, would leave a thousand foot ship incapacitated, floundering like a beached whale.
The Corps of Engineers began its first deepening project in 1855 when the depth of the Delaware stood at eighteen feet. The Corps dredged down to the current depth of forty feet during World War II and maintained this depth by periodic dredging and removal of silt buildup in the channel to the tune of about 3.4 million cubic yards a year. Since 1983, the Corps has studied the feasibility of dredging the Delaware’s main shipping channel down to forty-five feet to better accommodate the world commodities market by making the hundred and two mile shipping route from the Delaware Bay to Camden, New Jersey more accessible.
To do so, the Corps would need to remove about twenty-six million cubic yards of silt and sediment from the river bottom and continue removing another 862,000 cubic yards every year thereafter. Cost notwithstanding – the Corps estimates original construction costs at $311 million, of which the federal government would pay approximately two-thirds – the Corps needed a place to put all that sand, clay, silt and bedrock. Six federally owned sites have been identified for placement of the initial construction material, some of which will go toward wetland restoration and beach front protection. The Corps believes the project would result in safer, more efficient vessel loading and transit as well as reduced lightering costs. However, environmentalists have concluded that the possible detrimental effects – those to drinking water, aquatic and bird life, and potential contamination from the disposal of dredged material – outweigh the benefits. That story – small town need vs. corporate greed; environmental stewardship vs. environmental recklessness; the rights of the few vs. the rights of society – has been around since the dawn of creation, told and retold a million times in as many different ways and, because of constraints of space and time, is a story best saved for another day.
The Ryujin dropped anchor at Big Stone Anchorage at Slaughter Beach, Delaware in the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The “parking lot” in the Bay was crowded this morning with a dozen supertankers waiting to offload their cargo onto barges that would take the goods upriver to Marcus Hook or Philadelphia Harbor or Becket Street Terminal in Camden, New Jersey. Once offloaded, the supertankers were light enough to make the trip upriver themselves. Some had been waiting as much as a week while tugs and taxis cruised back and forth, bringing food and supplies to the waiting supertankers, crisscrossing the Bay like a checkerboard and leaving white caps in their wake. The great ships were parked far enough apart to allow them to spin on their anchors, a necessity when considering the vagaries of the weather. From the air it looked like a mechanical ballet: dozens of ships turning and gliding on their axes, a synchronized dance brought to life by the formidable forces of wind and tide.
The Ryujin traveled from the Arabian Gulf and had been parked in the Delaware Bay for the last week, awaiting the offloading of a million gallons of its crude oil onto a barge which would make it light enough to navigate the Delaware’s forty foot channel upriver to the Akanabi refinery in Marcus Hook. While waiting, the Ryujin took on skid loads of food, supplies and mechanical parts sufficient to tide her over until arrival at the next port. And since the suppliers were not interested in receiving credit for these transactions, the Ryujin carried vast quantities of cash to pay for those stores as well as armed guards to protect it. The ship’s superstructure housed a three-story engine room, a machine shop, steam turbine and diesel engines, a mess hall, living facilities for her Captain and crew, and a single cat who relished the job of keeping the mouse population down. Where the mice came from was anyone’s guess given that the ship had spent the last three weeks at sea.
Beside the Ryujin sat the Sea Witch , an engineless barge about the third of the size of the Ryujin , but with considerably less girth. Motored by The Grape Ape , a seventy-five foot, single-screw, diesel-powered tug boat, The Sea Witch sat, waiting to remove a million gallons of elemental crude oil from the Ryujin and shuttle it up the Delaware River channel for her. Afloat on a tidally influenced body of water, both boats were subject to the fickle, yet predictable, moods of the moon.
Named for the Dragon King of the sea, an important Japanese deity said to have the power to control the ebb and flow of the tides with his large mouth, the Ryujin wasn’t living up to its name today. It seemed that the ocean, the Bay, the moon and the tides were all in cahoots, as the Ryujin spun on its anchor at the wind’s ferocious insistence and the Sea Witch tried to make amends.
The process of lightering was a tricky one. Not only was there the danger of an oil spill during the transfer, but if the tanks were drained one at a time in order, a Captain would have a highly imbalanced keel on his hands, the bow of his ship rising higher into the air as each tank was emptied, a potentially disastrous event for a vessel whose primary need was balance in the water. Therefore, the Captain took great pains to ensure that the oil was skimmed off the top of each of the tanks in a controlled fashion, draining some from one tank, moving on to the next, and back and forth in this manner until the process was completed.
Captain Heston Reed was barking out orders like a man possessed. After several hours of trying and dripping with the emotional and physical strain of the task, there was nothing he could really do until the barge, the Sea Witch had tied on, an event which, despite tidal fluctuations was imminently close to completion. The fendering bumpers which consisted of a large piping structure encapsulated by dozens and dozens of tires, the gestalt of which worked like a ball bearing in between the two vessels, were lowered into place, the black scrape marks from previous lightering operations still visible on both ships. With the fendering bumpers properly lined up, Captain Reed gave the command and the Sea Witch’s crew tied on to the Ryujin , latching on to the hip of the Ryujin’s stern like a newborn to its mother’s bosom. The giant mooring ropes creaked and groaned as the crew cranked down on the winches pulling them tightly into position. Satisfied that the ships were happily married with no visible gaps in between, Captain Reed signaled the operator of the Sea Witch and gave the go ahead to his own crew. The crew began the arduous process of lowering a dozen twelve-inch round, rigid rubber pipes down some twenty-five feet onto the deck of the Sea Witch . The pipes were attached by cables to small cranes. The cranes swung them into place enabling the deck hands to make the mechanical connection to a screw coupling which was part of a larger manifold system on the deck of the Sea Witch and which fed into the barge’s holding tanks. The deck hands inserted the pipes and, using a special wrench and the sheer torque of their body weight, screwed the couplings fast. The rubber pipes originated from a similar manifold system on the deck of the Ryujin and once Captain Reed and the Sea Witch’s operator were satisfied that all mechanical connections were secured, the transferring, or lightering process could begin. Captain Reed personally checked each of the connections. The individual pipes were hooked to another, larger pipe so the ship and barge operators could control, via computer, which tank would give and which tank would receive the oil.
Captain Reed gave the signal and the Ryujin began offloading its crude, the oil flowing from its holding tanks through the manifold system and into the pipes that would carry it down to the Sea Witch’s manifold system. The rigid rubber pipes lurched forward as the sudden thrust of oil was released. Frank Charlton, the manifold operator, sat in the control house on the barge electronically directing the distribution of oil into the various holding tanks and taking great pains to keep the ship’s balance.
“Alright?” Captain Reed stepped into the computer room to ascertain for himself the integrity of the operation. There’d be hell to pay if someone made an error on his ship. Charlton nodded and turned briefly to acknowledge his superior officer. Captain Reed took a deep breath and the corner of his mouth twitched, but he did not smile.
“Let me know when it’s done then. I’m going to see about the pilot.”
“Yes sir, Captain,” Charlton replied without taking his eyes off the computer screen.
to be continued. . .
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