Dredging the Kill Van Kull

New York’s never-ending dig

The Kill Van Kull is the tidal canal separating Staten Island’s North Shore from Bayonne, New Jersey. It acts as the main throughway for marine traffic to Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the 13th largest port in the world. With the Kill’s long history of dredging, I’m interested in exploring the physical and economic scale of the dredging operation through history and process.


Dredging of the Kill Van Kull is a direct response to the ever-evolving container shipping industry. The size of container vessels is dictated by economies of scale — the bigger the ship, the more containers, the cheaper it is per unit to ship. One site reports a vessel carrying 12,500 TEU (Twenty foot Equivalent Unit — a unit representing one 20' container) costs $12.43 a day per container as opposed to a 18,000 TEU vessel which costs just $10.99 a day to ship. Economies of scale is a relentless yet invisible force.


The Kill Van Kull is inextricably linked to the Panama Canal, a multi-decade long project to provide a direct trade route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The canal was first attempted by the French in 1881–94 and then taken over by the United States in 1904. George W. Goethals, whose namesake is immortalized as a bridge connecting Staten Island and New Jersey, was appointed to oversee construction by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. Goethals had experience with canals and a military and engineering background and saw the Panama Canal to its completion.

The Canal cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, not to mention all the people and habitat displaced by the project. It is a completely fascinating mess.

At the time the Canal’s first ship passed through the locks in 1914, the Kill Van Kull was only about 15–20 feet deep in most places. The harbor of New York and the Hudson and East Rivers were naturally deep, about 45', because of the daily flow of the water to and from the Atlantic.


While the Panama Canal hosted larger and larger ships, the Port of New York Authority was established in 1921, which established a joint jurisdiction between New York and New Jersey over the operations of the harbor. This lead to innovations in industry, and in 1956 the SS Ideal XX set off out of the harbor as the world’s first container ship.

Containerization is simple; save time at the docks by packing goods in a container that can be transferred directly to truck or train. (Read about the Ideal X’s first voyage and the conception of containerization here) The landscape of the docks changed; massive cranes were installed and the role of longshoremen (dock workers) shifted and shrank. By 1962 Elizabeth-Port Marine Terminal was the first container port and the Kill Van Kull had been dredged to 35' to accommodate the ever-larger freight ships.


After two additional dredge projects in the 70s and 80s, the Van Kull was 45' deep in most places. In 1998 the Regina Maersk, a huge shipping container with a depth of 47', arrived in the harbor and was unable to pass through the channel without being unloaded to one fifth capacity.

“No matter how much we had already spent, we were no longer a viable modern port. We needed to evolve more.” Lillian C. Borrone
Port commerce director at Port Authority 1998

This was an unyielding message to Port Authority to dig deeper or lose business to Baltimore or Halifax. The Newark-Elizabeth Port Marine terminal is estimated to represent $11.2 billion in personal income and supports 270 thousand full-time jobs.

So it was time to dig deeper.

The latest project is part of a 1.6 billion dollar comprehensive deepening of all 38 miles of New York harbor’s shipping region to 50'. The Kill Van Kull dredging costs $115 million of that, split between the Army Corps of Engineers, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and less than 10% from New Jersey State. The dredging took place from 2008 to 2011 then again in 2013.


Meanwhile, back in Panama, new locks 60' deep were put in place to accommodate growing vessels as the silent force of economies of scale demanded more and more TEUs per ship.


After a decade of dredging and re-dredging, the Mol Benefactor arrives in Newark-Elizabeth Port Marine Terminal in July 2016. This is a Neo-Panamax vessel, the largest standard ship that can fit through the new locks in the Panama Canal, completed just a month prior with the hefty price tag of $5.5 billion… and counting.

Timeline of dredging in Kill Van Kull compared to Panama Canal Expansion


In the first few excavations of the Kill Van Kull, clam-shell style digging was employed, scooping the sand and silt up with a giant clam-shaped scooper and depositing it on a barge for disposal.

The latest round of dredging required use of explosives and massive drilling dredgers such as the Illinois. The sandy bottom had been completely stripped away revealing a bedrock of diabase, the same rock that makes up the Pallisades.


Liquid explosives were detonated 1–3 times a day 5 days a week over the course of the project and could shoot water 5–10 feet in the air. The sound and vibration could be heard from nearby residents and were about the equivalent of a passing bus. The explosions caused small underwater avalanches, making the rock easy to scoop up.


The cutter head is a beast with several rows of teeth. Drilling shifts are sometimes 12 hours long. The constant vibration of the ship causes screws to come loose and appliances such as air conditioners to need replacing. In some cases the diabase is 10' thick.

But digging must go on. The ships are getting bigger all the time.


The rock and clay excavated out of the Kill floor was contaminated with the gambit of toxic reminders of irresponsible industrial pursuits, carried in with the currents down the East River. Contaminated material in this region is taken to land sites in New Jersey, mixed with fly ash and cement then dumped to cap landfills. These eventually become landscapes of golf courses and shopping malls, thin veneers over toxic sludge.


Clean material is placed on a barge and tugged 5 hours away to sites in the Atlantic Ocean. Some of this is large chunks of bedrock used to build aquatic habitat. The sand and silt are used to cap an old ocean landfill, and underwater landscapes are transformed.

The Army Corps of Engineers says dredging the Van Kull to 50' should satisfactorily maintain New York harbor’s place in the shipping game for 30–40 years. But considering the size of these giant vessels, and the seemingly never-ending influence of economies of scale, how can they be sure?

The size of container ships has increased 20,000% in the last 59 years.

Twenty thousand percent.


Panamax ships are already much smaller than their Suezmax and VLCC cousins. Its seemingly only a matter of time (perhaps even just a few decades) when 50' is not going to be deep enough and the Panama Canal will need to be rethought to accommodate larger ships, with the Kill Van Kull close behind.

Shipping routes in one year: http://www.wired.com/2010/01/global-shipping-map/

The shipping industry is in constant, unrelenting motion. Enormous vessels stacked with containers move silently through oceans, ports and canals, turning consumer demands into products on shelves.

When we build landscapes at the scale of the shipping vessel…

Panama Canal — new 60' deep locks under construction

How do we consider the human scale? The coastal edges of the Kill Van Kull, dredged to 50' deep over 50 years, are shaped by the shipping industry, not by the people living along them.

Ribs of sunken, decaying ships and long-gone docks pepper the shallows, shadowed by goliath container vessels navigating the Kill to dock, unload, reload and return to sea.