As Seaway pauses for winter, opening
date debate continues
By M.B. Pell & Marc Heller
Watertown Daily Times
Published January 17th, 2005
The St. Lawrence Seaway has been closed for less than
a month, but already critics have begun to discuss the
potential problems surrounding the 2005 opening date.
Stephanie G. Weiss said the goals of Save the River,
an environmental watchdog group based in Clayton, remain
nearly the same as last year's objectives.
She said the organization wants the St. Lawrence Seaway
Development Corp. to release the criteria it uses to decide
when the shipping season begins and to have the state
Department of Environmental Conservation help decide when
the shipping season begins. In addition, Save the River
wants the Seaway to set the opening date for April 1 every
year and push it to an earlier date if weather conditions
allow, instead of setting an earlier date and pushing
it back because of the weather.
"It's a frustrating position to be in to have to
request something year after year and not see results,"
Ms. Weiss said. "I do feel like we've made some progress.
I believe the visibility of the issue is a sign of progress."
Last year, U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles
E. Schumer criticized the Seaway Corp. for endangering
the environment by opening the shipping season too early,
on March 25.
Waves build strength while traveling under ice, DEC experts
have said, and then damage crucial wildlife spawning ground
when they crash into the shoreline. Critics have also
voiced concerns that the Seaway Development Corp. would
have difficulty cleaning up a chemical spill on the river
when there is ice on the water because the boats and boat
launches would be inaccessible.
In a written response to DEC last year, Seaway Corp.
Administrator Albert S. Jacquez said the state agency's
concerns seemed based on a 1978 study focusing on the
prospect of midwinter navigation, rather than ice clearing
in early spring. And while the Seaway has never experienced
a major spill at or near the Seaway's opening, he said,
officials limit the depth and sometimes the width of vessels
during icy conditions. The Seaway agencies have an emergency
response plan, he wrote.
"A recently completed assessment by two experts
in oil spill response under ice and arctic conditions
found our plan to be fundamentally sound," Mr. Jacquez
wrote to DEC Commissioner Erin Crotty in May.
Ms. Weiss said the Seaway has included a plan to use
ice punts to clean up wintertime chemical spills, but
she questions how effective those ice-skimming vehicles
Seaway officials did not return phone calls Thursday
to say whether they have tested wintertime cleanup techniques.
DEC spokesman Stephen W. Litwhiler said DEC has not contacted
the Seaway Development Corp. this year, but he said the
agency's position has not changed from a year ago.
"We feel that we do have something to offer and
we would like to see the criteria they use for setting
the opening date," Mr. Litwhiler said. "That
still stands even though we haven't brought it up this
Last spring, Mr. Jacquez also asked DEC if officials
had similar concerns about ice breaking and commercial
navigation on the Hudson River, where barges carry millions
of gallons of fuel between New York City and Albany during
the winter. He never received a response despite at least
two requests, a Seaway Corp. spokeswoman said.
But Mr. Litwhiler said the agency does not have similar
concerns about ice breaking on the Hudson. The two rivers
are not comparable, he said, because ice is not as thick
or extensive as on the St. Lawrence and because tides
regularly lift and settle any ice cover on the Hudson.
The effects of the motion of the ice on the shores of
the Hudson is normal, he said.
However, DEC is concerned about the possibility of fuel
spills on both waterways, Mr. Litwhiler said.
Anthony M. David, water quality program manager with the
St. Regis Mohawk Environmental Division, said he could
not address questions concerning what demands the nation
has made of the Seaway Development Corp. because of an
ongoing lawsuit between the Seaway and the tribe.
"I think that all we can really do is expect that
this agency will be responsive to the constituents who
have an interest in this resource," Ms. Weiss said.
"All we can do is work with government officials
to bring about what we believe is a safer process for
setting the opening date."