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Great Lakes Article:

St. Lawrence Seaway dredging hits rough waters
LAKE MICHIGAN: Environmentalists fear evaluation study will lead to deep dredging.
By Debra Gruszecki
Northwest Indiana Times
Published June 29th, 2004


A rip tide is swirling over a bi-country transportation study of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

Supporters say it will guide necessary upgrades, while critics fear it could be the first step in a plan to deepen Great Lakes shipping canals, which could harm the lakes, including Lake Michigan.

Formally initiated in May 2003 by Canada and the United States, the 30-month, $20 million study is under way to determine what needs to be done to sustain the navigation system for another 50 years.

It will be the focus of a public stakeholder hearing July 14 in Chicago.

"What we have is an aging infrastructure, which has not had any type of comprehensive reconstruction," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager Wayne Schloop, referring to a series of locks that linked the Great Lakes system to ocean-going vessels that date as far back as 1914.

"If you think of the highway system, how many times has that been rebuilt?"

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., and the Indiana Port Commission support the study.

The memo of cooperation signed by the United States and Canada specifically said that enlarging or expanding the system would not be on the table for this study, said David Knight, project manager for the Great Lakes Commission.

Jody Peacock, a spokesman for Indiana Port Commission, called the study timely because intermodal transportation is fast becoming a crucial part of the national economy.

Still, critics of the study, mostly environmentalists, suggest its underlying aim remains to set in motion plans eventually to dredge connecting channels and open the Seaway to the largest-size ships that traverse the Panama Canal.

Members of the National Wildlife Federation, based in the United States, said the Great Lakes Commission and Army Corps originally proposed expanding and deepening the 26-foot-deep waterway navigational channel to 35 feet.

Deepening the waterway would destroy Great Lakes habitat, lower water levels, create beach erosion and compound invasive species problems, environmentalists contend.

"We know there are interests from some ports and members of Congress to pursue enlarging the seaway," said Tim Eder, water resources director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Lee Botts, of Gary, a nationally known clean-water expert, and Tom Anderson, executive director of Save the Dunes Council, concur.

"The aim is to open the Seaway to Panamax ships," Botts said, referring to the largest-size ships that travel through the Panama Canal. Botts said it is a concept that would require dredging connecting channels such as Lake St. Clair and the St. Marys River and building bigger locks, including the one located in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

"The Corps asserts such ships would use the seaway if they could, bringing jobs and businesses to Great Lakes cities. The reality is, Great Lakes shipping has been declining for decades for reasons not related to the seaway."

A rise in the number of saltwater vessels from foreign ports also could introduce more exotic species to fresh water, Anderson said.

The zebra mussel invasion has brought Lake Michigan fishing to the brink of collapse, Eder said. "The whole base of the food web is jeopardized, and a lot of scientists think it's caused by zebra mussels."

Knight, of the Great Lakes Commission, has heard these arguments in stakeholder hearings on the study held earlier this year in Canada and in Duluth, Minn.

"Clearly, the environmental interests have had strong feelings about invasive species and issues of resource management that intersect with maritime navigation," he said.

"But the people from ports and shipping communities have been articulate in expressing their desire for a good, strong future for the system."

Albert Jacquez, who heads the American portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, told the Toronto Star newspaper in Canada he believed the environmentalists were being purposely misleading.

The seaway "must be maintained and improved to continue the flow of commerce," said Peacock, of the Indiana Ports Commission, noting that 200 million tons of cargo move through the 2,300-mile-long system annually from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth.

That flow of commerce contributes more than $6 billion to the economy and acts as a relief valve for interstate commerce on land. If the same 200-ton load of cargo were to be shipped on land, it would consume 18,000 trains and 7 million trucks, Peacock said.

"Transportation through the Great Lakes and inland waterway system is the most efficient, cleanest and safest mode of transportation there is, so sustaining that and improving that would greatly benefit the region and environment," he said.

The navigation system provides a way of life for 5,000 people who work at the Ports of Indiana, Peacock said. The entire waterway supports more than 65,000 jobs in Canada and the United States, the Army Corps' Schloop said. The waterway region is home to almost 100 million people, roughly one-third of the combined U.S.-Canadian population.

Eder said the National Wildlife Federation is not out to stop shipping but wants commercial navigation adapted to meet the physical and ecological confines of the Great Lakes.

He hopes planners consider setting up a system in which the larger, saltwater vessels can unload and load at St. Lawrence Seaway ports such as Montreal, with lakers carrying cargo from point to point on the Great Lakes.

Schloop said the study is looking at short-sea shipping components.

Visclosky called the study a crucial first step toward keeping the seaway a living, breathing waterway for marine life and transportation.

"It is important to look at the Great Lakes from many different aspects and angles to find solutions that make sense from an environmental and economic perspective," he said.

 

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