As the global shipping industry moves to bigger ships to handle surging seaborne cargo trade, marine contractors are digging profits from mud, sand and rock. The New York and Newark harbor channels are the latest to be dredged, with the Corps of Engineers recently announcing two key contracts. Click here to view map

Plans call for dredging the Kill van Kull to 45 ft by 2004 and the Arthur Kill to 41 ft by the end of 2007. That work will set the stage for a deeper cut, to 50 ft, by 2009.

TRAFFIC JAM Container ships approaching New York and Newark queue up for lightering before coming to dockside. (Photo courtesy of Army Corps of Engineers)

The contracts are relatively small–$39 million to Jay Cashman Inc., Dorchester, Mass., and $17 million to Hillside, N.J.-based DonJon Inc.–but they are key components in what the Corps calls one of its largest civil works efforts under way. In two authorizations, in 1986 and 1990, Congress approved cutting channels to 50 ft–work valued at more than $3 billion. "It ranks in size with the Everglades cleanup," says Joseph J. Seebode, chief of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Programs branch for the Corps.

"We handled 3.75 million TEUs last year, up 13% from the year before," says Richard M. Larrabee, port commerce director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "We’re looking at doubling our cargo demand within the next 10 years." (A TEU is a 20-ft equivalent unit, the standard measurement for cargo container volume.)

A new generation of cargo vessels will carry 8,000 containers, compared to 3,000 typically loaded on today’s Panamax ships. Planners began to realize that "the port in its present condition was not capable of handling the larger ships and the increased tonnage that was in the forecast," says Larrabee. "We had to take a systems approach, integrate different modes of transportation–ship to rail, barge or truck–or watch our business go somewhere else."

The Corps is adopting its own systems approach, looking for ways to reach 50 ft as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible. "Our contracting strategy is to break the work into pieces that are big enough to achieve economies of scale, but also to keep segments small enough to attract maximum competition," says Seebode. "We believe that we’ll end up on schedule and well under the cost projections."

The approach has attracted a world-class equipment fleet to the harbor in recent months: some 80 pieces of dredge-related equipment in all, according to the Corps. Oak Brook, Ill.-based Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Inc. won contracts in two sections of the

Kill van Kull, worth $54 million combined. The company commissioned the New York, claimed to be the world’s biggest backhoe barge, to help remove some 700,000 cu yd of material.

When the job was done, it leased the equipment to New Orleans-based Bean Dredging. Bean is at work in two other Kill van Kull areas, on jobs with a combined value of $103 million. "We’ve got three backhoe and two clamshell barges," says Jim Thomas, Bean vice president. "It’s a challenge, keeping on schedule, working with the Coast Guard to keep the navigation lanes open, working around fish spawning seasons and working to dispose of the material in a way that makes sense environmentally." Spoil can be used to cap landfills, build artificial reefs or be disposed of at an offshore site, he says.