So long, salties?
TRANSPORTATION:A new study suggests closing the St. Lawrence
Seaway to saltwater ships may be the most economical way
to deal with invasive species in the Great Lakes.
By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune
Published December 25, 2005
A recent study has posed a simple but provocative question:
What would happen if the St. Lawrence Seaway were closed
to ocean-going traffic?
John Taylor, an associate transportation professor at
Michigan's Grand Valley State University, just published
a cost-benefit analysis of saltie traffic in the Seaway
His work is stirring waves because it suggests foreign
ships bring more harm than help to the Great Lakes. That
harm primarily arrives in the form of non-native organisms
carried into the region as ballast tank stowaways -- creatures
such as the zebra mussel, the round goby and the spiny
With the help of James Roach, a Michigan transportation
consultant, Taylor tried to calculate how much more American
and Canadian shippers would spend to move goods if saltwater
vessels were barred from the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Blocking salties' access to the Great Lakes would cost
shippers an additional $54.9 million annually, based on
2002 traffic levels.
Taylor contrasted that expense with what utilities spend
to combat invasive species in the Great Lakes -- a cool
$200 million to $500 million per year, according to previously
published studies that he cites.
"I have not taken a position as to whether saltwater
ships should be barred from the Seaway or held liable
for the costs associated with introducing invasives,"
Taylor said. "But I think our cost comparisons could
lead to some pretty interesting debate."
Taylor's study has met with a barrage of questions and
skepticism on the part of Seaway advocates.
Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway
Port Authority, considers the idea of closing the Seaway
to saltwater vessels ludicrous.
"The cost of land-side transportation, particularly
with rising fuel costs and congestion issues, is making
the Seaway more competitive and critical for shipping,"
Ojard said the volume of international trade in the United
States is expected to double in the next decade.
"If you look at the sheer increase in international
trade that's forecast, it's bound to spill over in the
Great Lakes system," he said, adding that the discussion
should be about how to make greater use of the Seaway,
However, Jennifer Nalbone, campaign director for Great
Lakes United, a binational association dedicated to protecting
and restoring the health of the Great Lakes and the St.
Lawrence River, said Taylor deserves credit for broaching
a controversial subject.
"He drew open the curtain by asking a taboo question:
Could the Seaway system succeed without saltwater vessels
in the Great Lakes?" she said.
Anthony Ricciardi, a professor of environmental science
at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, studies exotic
species in the Great Lakes. He also praised Taylor for
examining a halt to saltie traffic as an option.
"If you want to keep a large amount of invaders
out, it makes sense to address the primary source of the
problem," he said.
At least 70 percent of new aquatic invaders documented
since 1970 arrived via saltwater ships, Ricciardi said.
On average, he said a new foreign species is discovered
every 6 months.
"Every one of these invaders is like a hidden tax,"
Ricciardi said. "You don't know what it will cost
until it arrives, and once it's here, it's not likely
to ever go away."
At the same time that exotic species continue to multiply,
the volume of saltie traffic on the Great Lakes has dwindled.
In 2002, Taylor found that 12.3 million metric tons of
ocean vessel cargo passed into and out of the lakes --
a mere 6.8 percent of the tonnage that moved via the Seaway
The Seaway's saltwater traffic was even weaker in 2003
and 2004, but Taylor said he used 2002 figures because
he considered them more representative.
In 2002, the Seaway accounted for 1.9 percent of all
U.S. grain exports and 10.9 percent of Canadian grain
exports. Meanwhile, foreign ships calling on the Seaway
brought in 6.3 percent of U.S. iron and steel imports
and 21.4 percent of Canadian steel imports.
Much of the American grain that flows through the Seaway
is loaded in the Twin Ports.
Even though the Seaway moves a relatively small portion
of the nation's total exports, it's a crucial link for
farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota, said Dave Torgerson,
executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat
"We're as far away from export markets as we could
be, and we depend on Duluth and Superior," he said.
Should saltwater ships stop calling on the port, Torgerson
said many farmers would be completely dependent on railroads
to move their crops to export markets, and he suspects
transportation costs would soar.
Taylor has suggested that even if saltwater ships were
barred from the Seaway, grain could continue to flow through
the Great Lakes by way of lakers. Salties could then be
loaded at the mouth of the Seaway. He estimates a fleet
of fewer than eight lakers would be sufficient to handle
roughly 50 percent of grain exports now handled by the
Seaway. Taylor figured the remainder would transfer to
rail, barge and truck.
Torgerson doubts the Seaway would still be a cost-competitive
option if saltwater ships could not be loaded directly
in the Twin Ports.
Richard Stewart, director of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's
Transportation and Logistics Research Center, considers
Torgerson's concerns well-founded.
"If you're going to have to transfer grain from
a laker to a saltwater ship, it's going to add time, handling
costs and potential damage to the picture," he said.
During peak times of the year, more than 90 percent of
lakers are in use, Stewart said.
Nevertheless, Taylor remains optimistic lakers could
be put to more efficient use, freeing up new capacity.
Potentially, this shift could lead to more work for U.S.
and Canadian laker crews, Nalbone said. "There could
be a win-win scenario if you look at a cargo-transfer
"The devil is in the details," said Stewart,
pointing out that there would be significant logistical
challenges to having lakers take the place of salties
in the Seaway.
Stewart has not yet reviewed Taylor's report, but he
said that if the costs of invasive species are to be weighed
against the financial benefits of salties on the Great
Lakes, other external expenses associated with land transport
alternatives should also be considered.
He pointed to fuel consumption, road runoff, air pollution,
congestion and infrastructure costs as some of the potential
consequences of shifting cargo from ships to trains and
Stewart noted that, on average, a four-lane highway costs
about $22 million per mile to build.
But Taylor said the amount of additional traffic that
would be generated by a halt to saltie traffic in the
Seaway would be relatively inconsequential. He figures
it would translate into an additional 1.6 trains and 187
trucks per day.
Safety is yet another issue, Ojard raised.
"How many times have you heard of a ship killing
a person?" he asked.
Stewart suggested Taylor might want to consider the fact
that land transportation can spread invasive species as
well. He pointed out that gypsy moths, long-horned beetles
and other pests have been known to hitch rides aboard
trains and trucks.
Taylor stands by his findings, however.
"Is our study perfect? No. But I think we're certainly
in the ballpark," he said.
PETER PASSI covers business. Call him at (218) 279-5526
or (800) 456-8282 or e-mail him at email@example.com.