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Great Lakes Article:

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 system.

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 water flea.

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.

His conclusion?

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," he said.

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, not less.

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 that year.

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 Producers.

"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 model."

"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 trucks.

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

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