Disagreement over the environmental impacts of the Bayonne Bridge project

By Chris Spahr

Two federal agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, do not agree on the assessment of the environmental impacts of raising the Bayonne Bridge from 150 feet of clearance to 215 feet of clearance over the Kill Van Kull between Bayonne, NJ, and Staten Island, NY.  On January 4, the Coast Guard announced the availability of the Draft Environmental Assessment (Draft EA), which considered the reasonably foreseeable environmental and socio-economic impacts of the proposed modification of the historic Bayonne Bridge.

The disagreement primarily concerns the impacts on air quality and the resulting effects on the local communities. As the federal permitting agency for the project, the Coast Guard prepared the Draft EA and   concluded that, “The project would not substantially change on-road emissions. Therefore, the project would not result in adverse impacts on air quality, and would result in a net reduction in marine emissions, improving air quality in the region.”  Additionally, they concluded, “Since no significant air quality impacts would occur, air quality mitigation is not required.”

However, in comments submitted to the Coast Guard in December and obtained by The Newark Star-Ledger, the EPA stated, “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.”

Claiming that in communities surrounding New Jersey’s ports, one in four children suffer from asthma and the risk of cancer from diesel emissions that are far higher than the acceptable level, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports is calling for an Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to prepare an EIS for major federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. If it is determined that the Bayonne Bridge project will have a significant environmental impact on the surrounding communities, the Coast Guard could be required to elevate the Draft EA to an EIS, which would significantly delay the project. 

In the Draft EA the Coast Guard states that the project would have no direct or indirect effect on regional traffic capacity or vehicle miles traveled, and no substantial effect on the volume of port activity or overall maritime trade patterns. The Coast Guard further states, “Moreover, the project is not expected to have adverse impacts on low-income or minority populations in the greater area because the potential for induced truck or train traffic is minimal.”

Estimates show that nearly 64 percent of container shipments worldwide are being done by the large ships called post-Panamax vessels, none of which can fit under the bridge as it is currently designed. Most of the ships require a clearance of at least 200 feet. Proponents of the Bayonne Bridge project claim that upon completion of the Panama Canal expansion sometime next year, larger ships will travel directly from Asia to East Coast ports. If these ships cannot pass under the Bayonne Bridge, they will choose to stop at other East Coast ports, which would be economically detrimental to the Port of New York and New Jersey.

In July 2012 the Obama administration agreed to expedite federal permit and review decisions for the raising of the bridge. However, the New Jersey Sierra Club President expressed his disapproval. “Fast tracking means you are pushing the approval through without adequate reviews or analysis. Government never fast tracks a ‘no’ only a ‘yes.’ This will mean shoddy reviews, less public input, more costs and bigger environmental impacts,” said the club’s president, Jeff Tittel.

Both supporters and opponents of the project were present among the several hundred attendees at the public hearing in Newark on February 13. The Coast Guard will consider the testimony gathered at the Newark public hearing as well at other hearings held in Staten Island and Bayonne, and is expected to make a decision on how to proceed with the project by May 24.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.