CIty Paper: Meet the Delaware’s Guardian Angel

Maya van Rossum was a second-grader at Ithan Elementary School in Villanova when she waged her first environmental battle.

Birds kept crashing into the art room windows with a disquieting thud, yet no one bothered *to collect their remains, much less figure out how to keep them from flying into the windows in the first place. Van Rossum remembers how upset she — then a headstrong blue-eyed girl with short blond hair who preferred trousers over dresses — became trying to persuade school authorities to give her a shovel so she could bury the birds herself. She was distressed, she says, because no one seemed to care.

Those who know van Rossum might guess how the story ended. Her persistence paid off: She got the shovel, and the birds got a proper burial. Eventually, she says, “people wised up,” and the school put a visible barrier on the windows to deter the birds.

Van Rossum has fought for environmental causes ever since. Anyone who’s followed the controversy surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to deepen the Delaware River’s shipping channel knows her name. As the Delaware Riverkeeper, van Rossum is the face of the opposition. She is the head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), a nonprofit environmental organization that seeks to protect the 330-mile-long river and its 13,539-square-mile watershed, which includes 260 direct tributaries in four states. The longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, the Delaware starts in New York and flows through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to the Atlantic Ocean.

“My perspective is that I really am speaking for the river,” says van Rossum. The Delaware, she figures, is an irreplaceable resource for Philadelphia — and now its vitality is threatened. The Corps’ dredging project — the first phase, called “Reach C,” began in early March, and will be completed by summer — would deepen the river by 5 feet to allow for larger ships to pass and, in theory, create more jobs.

Dredging, or the underwater excavation of sediment from the bottom of rivers, has massive environmental implications. It can stir up sediment and any toxic contaminants — e.g., pesticides, lead, copper, zinc, cadmium — buried at the bottom of the river. The DRN argues that the deepening project will threaten fish and shellfish habitats and erode marshlands that are home to a variety of species and protect communities from storms; the dredging could also contaminate New Jersey and Philadelphia’s drinking water and imperil commercial, recreational and ecotourism jobs, according to the DRN.

The Corps intends to dredge the river’s 102.5-mile channel to deepen it from 40 feet to 45 feet between Philadelphia and the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Recent Corps estimates indicate the five-year project will cost more than $300 million, funded by the federal government and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA).

The project’s opponents want Congress to deauthorize the dredging project. They cite a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found the Corps’ reassessment of market and industry conditions once again lacking (see A Million Stories, April 8). That GAO report suggests that many of the economic benefits that dredging supporters expect may not materialize.

And at the center of this ever-ratcheting debate is van Rossum, an outgoing, outdoorsy 44-year-old lawyer and mother of six who says she enjoys patrolling the river “to inform the work I do, but also because it’s beautiful.”

But where some see a tireless, if folksy, standard-bearer, fighting to protect the river despite the political pressure exerted by many of the region’s job-desperate leaders, others see a relentless gadfly, an impediment to necessary progress.

“People say a lot of things about me,” van Rossum says. “I know the reality and I know the reality isn’t about me.”

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