But some here and in neighborhoods near other East Coast ports are leery of the monster ships that will soon arrive because of a trade project thousands of miles away that they believe will harm their air quality, roadways and waterways.
"We can't afford any additional environmental burdens," said Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp.
East and Gulf coast ports are jockeying against one another, scrambling to accommodate so-called "post-Panamax" ships: massive vessels that can traverse an expanded Panama Canal. The $5.25 billion project is expected to be completed in 2015 and will nearly triple the size of ships that can travel the canal.
One of the most remarkable transformations is proposed not far from the Ironbound. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey wants to raise the Bayonne Bridge, a soaring steel arch span that connects Bayonne, N.J., with New York City's Staten Island borough, by 64 feet. The $1 billion project would allow post-Panamax ships to reach Port Newark and the Elizabeth Port Authority Marine Terminals in New Jersey and Howland Hook in New York. It was fast-tracked by President Barack Obama last year and is expected to be completed in 2016. Channels near the bridge will be deepened to 50 feet.
Residents in the Ironbound and on Staten Island worry that larger ships will bring more trucks and increased diesel pollution to poor communities that already shoulder heavy traffic loads. The Ironbound Community Corp. does an annual one-day count of trucks that pass through and idle in the heavily industrial neighborhood; in 2011 it counted 1,327 driving on neighborhood streets and highways and 41 idling. The Ironbound is also home to the state's largest incinerator and sewage treatment plant.
"It's going to be a lot of dust, a lot of dirt, a lot of vibrations with the raising of the bridge, and there's going to be a lot of truck traffic and rerouting of trucks," said Beryl Thurman, executive director of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy on Staten Island. She can see the bridge from her home.
The Coast Guard issued a draft environmental assessment of the project last month and found it will have no significant environmental or health effects. The public has until March 5 to review the report and comment.
The Environmental Protection Agency rebuked the Coast Guard in written comments, saying it has "fundamental concerns" with the Coast Guard's findings and thinks a more robust examination must be done.
"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," the EPA wrote in remarks submitted to the Coast Guard.
Hundreds of people packed one of three public hearings on the project on Feb. 13. Some, including trade union members and residents, said the project should get its final permitting because both the construction and cargo traffic would provide much-needed jobs to the area.
Unemployment in is at 14.7 percent in Newark and 11.8 percent in Bayonne, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's 8.8 percent in New York City. The national unemployment rate is 7.9 percent.
Others worried about health issues and said the project must go forward only if efforts are made to reduce environmental effects.
"I have many concerns about unhealthy air quality at the port," said Nancy Mincey, an Ironbound resident whose 13-year-old son has severe asthma.
Eduardo Rivera, a truck driver, said that drivers idle in lines and that those classified as independent contractors can't afford to buy newer, more efficient trucks.
"The Port Authority should fix port trucking; then they can raise the bridge," he said at the hearing.
In a statement, the Port Authority said raising the roadway will "have tremendous economic and environmental benefits for communities throughout the Port District." The agency said it is "committed to clean air strategies ... and we will continue to work with our neighbors in the port district to ensure that our ports are healthy and economically viable moving forward."
Gary Kassof, bridge program manager for the First Coast Guard District, said the agency stands by its assessment and is taking resident concerns into account before deciding if the document will be finalized or if more study is needed.
"We haven't made any decisions," Kassof said. "We are here to listen and gather information over the next couple of months, and that's what we'll be doing."
The report says truck traffic will increase one to two trucks an hour by 2035, a change that will have a "negligible effect on air quality." It also says the bigger, newer ships are more fuel efficient and produce fewer emissions than smaller, older ones.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a federal lawsuit last year on behalf of environmental organizations over plans to deepen the shipping channel to the nation's fourth-busiest container port in Savannah, Ga. Dredging the Savannah River, which runs between Georgia and South Carolina, would result in toxic cadmium being deposited on South Carolina shores and threaten wildlife.
"The Bayonne Bridge is the flip side of the Savannah deepening," with one in the air and the other underwater, said Blan Holman, a managing attorney in the center's Charleston, S.C., office.
The National Center for Healthy Housing is studying the effects of truck traffic and an intermodal rail facility from the Port of Baltimore, which plans to greatly increase commerce once the canal is widened.
"The main thing in terms of health that we're focusing on is looking at the impacts of truck traffic on local roads," said Ruth Lindberg, a program manager at the center.
In Miami, the Tropical Audubon Society last year settled a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers that claimed dredging the port would significantly damage Biscayne Bay and harm wildlife.
Residents and environmental groups in Charleston, S.C., aren't as worried about cargo vessels as cruise ships. They're currently battling over the environmental and aesthetic impact of increased cruise ship traffic and worry a wider canal could bring even larger ships.
Some on the West Coast, whose ports handle most U.S. imports from Asia, are concerned their ports will hemorrhage cargo and jobs because of the expanded canal. A "Beat the Canal" campaign in California is trying to push projects that would "enhance the competitiveness of our green ports and corridors," according to its website.
Back in New York, Thurman and others said they want the Coast Guard to fully assess the impact to the communities surrounding the bridge and ports.
"I don't understand what they're thinking," Thurman said, "except that they don't live here and if something goes horribly wrong, they're not going to be scrambling to get the hell out of the way."