Fifteen years ago, no one worried whether container ships were too tall to clear the Bayonne Bridge. The Port of New York and New Jersey had a more immediate problem: insufficient water depths under ships’ hulls.
A stalemate over dredging threatened the future of the East Coast’s busiest port. For three years in the mid-1990s, the port couldn’t obtain permits to maintain its channels at 40 feet, let alone deepen them to handle post-Panamax ships.
Today, work is proceeding swiftly to deepen New York-New Jersey’s main channels to 50 feet by 2011. Dredging no longer makes headlines, and Frank M. McDonough had much to do with the change.
McDonough, who retired this month as president of the New York Shipping Association, shakes his head when he recalls the bickering, lawsuits and dredging deadlock of the 1990s. “We had environmental groups on one side and port interests on the other,” McDonough said. “No one could agree on anything.”
Cutting this Gordian Knot required development of innovative ways to dispose of dredged material — separating the clean from the dirty and recycling some of it in places such as under shopping malls and at the Jersey City, N.J., golf course that hosted a PGA tournament last month.
The real solution, however, lay in “getting everybody to stop shouting at each other and to realize that everybody had to give a little,” McDonough said. It was a gradual process, “like climbing a ladder. Eventually, you get to the top, which is where we are now.”
McDonough became immersed in the controversy in 1994 when New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman tapped him to serve on a dredged material management team that developed a master plan. He later became the state’s first executive director of maritime resources.
He was suited to the work. Unlike some port people, McDonough didn’t see environmental regulation as a necessary evil. He was green before green was cool, an environmentalist before anyone used the term, and his background gave him credibility with both sides.
“I’ve always loved nature and the outdoors,” he said. “I’ve camped, canoed, hiked and biked all my life. I love the openness, the sense of freedom.” As a boy in Boston, he used to stow a backpack with hot dogs and beans and hike six miles to a nature preserve.
A rebellious teenager, he endured one semester in college before enlisting in the Marine Corps, a decision that changed his life. He spent 22 years in the Marines, including service in Vietnam, and retired in 1978 as a major.
McDonough said the Marines taught him discipline, responsibility and more. “I would recommend it to any young person,” he said. “You learn how to manage people. You learn how to manage budgets. You learn how to write a plan. And in the military you learn that not everything is possible immediately. You have setbacks, and you have to do workarounds.”
After retiring from the Marines, McDonough graduated magna cum laude from Boston University and earned a law degree, taking every environmental and administrative course he could.
He served as an environmental crimes prosecutor in Monmouth County, N.J., then joined a firm that handled environmental cases as well as other work, including school board labor negotiations. That turned out to be good training for his later job at the NYSA, which deals with the International Longshoremen’s Association.
After a stint heading Nation’s Port, an advocacy group, McDonough came to the NYSA expecting its top environmental issue to be dredging. But by then the big problem was another potential show-stopper — air pollution. Voluntary equipment and operating changes have helped cut the port’s air emissions per cargo ton by 45 percent in five years, and avoid Southern California-style mandates.
The Bayonne Bridge still awaits port authority action. The NYSA favors building a replacement tunnel, removing the bridge’s roadway to provide ship clearance and keeping the span for its aesthetic and historical value.
But that’s years off, and McDonough isn’t waiting for it. Now retired, he’s itching to load his camper and hit the open road. There’s a big world out there, with a lot of nature to enjoy.
Contact Joseph Bonney at email@example.com.