By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger (Feb. 13, 2103)
A proposal to raise the Bayonne Bridge has divided the EPA and the Coast Guard over whether the project would have a significant environmental impact.
NEWARK — The Environmental Protection Agency has “fundamental concerns” over a finding by the Coast Guard that raising the Bayonne Bridge would not have a significant environmental impact.
“We believe that an appropriate analysis would likely reveal changes in the distribution pattern of cargo which could reasonably be expected to result in environmental impacts, particularly air quality impacts associated with increased Port activity and associated diesel truck traffic,” the EPA stated in comments submitted to the Coast Guard in December, obtained by The Star-Ledger.
The Coast Guard is the federal permitting agency for a plan to raise the bridge roadway by an additional 64 feet, which would allow larger ships to pass beneath it en route to container ports in Newark, Elizabeth and Staten Island.
The Coast Guard’s findings in the draft assessment, and the EPA’s comments in response, represent a dispute between two federal agencies over a huge infrastructure project backed by the local shipping trade, construction and longshoremen’s unions, and Gov. Chris Christie, among others. The project has been granted fast-track review status by the White House.
The Coast Guard, which insists it is conducting a thorough, objective review, will host a public meeting on the project today at 4 p.m., at the Leroy Smith Public Safety Building in Newark.
Environmentalists, neighborhood activists and environmental justice lawyers from the Coalition for Healthy Ports requested a Newark meeting after sessions were initially scheduled only for Bayonne and Staten Island. The Coast Guard also has extended the comment period on the environmental assessment by 15 days, to March 5.
Gary Kassof, the Coast Guard’s bridge program manager for the region, offered assurances that concerns expressed by the EPA and others would be addressed.
“Upon completion of the comment period on March 5, 2013 we will address all comments received, including any additional comments from EPA,” Kassof said in an email
Proponents of the $1 billion bridge project proposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey say it is critical to the port’s health in the so-called post-Panamax era, when ever-larger ships will travel directly to East Coast ports from Asia upon completion of a Panama Canal expansion sometime next year. If the bridge remains an obstacle, they say, cargo will shift to other East Coast ports, jeopardizing thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity.
The healthy ports coalition, the New Jersey Sierra Club and others say they support the bridge project, but want safeguards to insure that the largely poor, minority neighborhoods surrounding ports in Newark and Elizabeth do not raise asthma rates and cause other health consequences. The coalition, in conjunction with the Newark-based Eastern Environmental Law Center, has threatened a lawsuit if its concerns are not addressed, a move that could significantly delay the time-sensitive bridge project.
Environmentalists have also called on the Coast Guard to produce a more in-depth, farther-reaching study of the project’s consequences, known as an environmental impact statement.
“This project is too important and its impacts too great to the community around it,” the Sierra Club’s director, Jeff Tittel, said in a statement. “There needs to be an open, transparent process that looks at the overall transportation needs, pollution impacts, and environmental justice to ensure this project is done right. Otherwise, we all suffer.”
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