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Great Lakes Article:

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 will be.

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 year."

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."

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