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Great Lakes Article:

Groups charge expansion of river would hurt environment
Associated Press

An environmental group and a budget watchdog organization joined forces Thursday to criticize the proposed widening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, charging such a project would damage the environment and waste taxpayer money.

The National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense singled out the St. Lawrence Seaway as one of several major sites around the nation where they say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers risks damaging the environment for little tangible economic benefit.

At present, the corps is only studying the future of commercial shipping on the waterway leading into the Great Lakes, and a study supervisor said the complaints are ill-timed because the analysis isn't even halfway complete.

But opponents of widening the waterways for larger ships fear the work will ultimately lead to a multibillion-dollar project for the 2,300-mile system of channels and locks that would harm the surrounding areas and threaten the ecosystems of the lakes.

Environmentalists' greatest concern is the spread of foreign species that overwhelm native aquatic life. Zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea first appeared in the Great Lakes in 1988, most likely carried inside ships' ballast tanks. Since then, the mussels have clogged water pipes, ships and docks.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense argued the corps did very valuable work in the past, but in recent years has become mired in special-interest and pork barrel politics, promoting big-ticket projects with little merit.

"The corps has become a scandal of an agency that needs to be reformed," Ellis said.

Lt. Col. Thomas Magness, whose Detroit office is overseeing the seaway study, said it is unfair to criticize scientific work that is still in its early stages.

"I think it's premature to start shooting down the results when we're at this point in the analysis," said Magness. "We're clearly following a process that we'll all be able to stand proudly of the answer, whatever the answer may be."

The work has been divided among an economic team, an environmental team, and an engineering team, studying everything from the physical condition of the massive locks along the river to the long-term economic viability of the shipping corridor.

Magness said he would like the environmental groups to join the study process.

The study has another 21 months until completion, but New York lawmakers are already fighting the Bush administration's proposed spending for further study in the 2005 fiscal year budget.

Rep. John McHugh, a Republican whose district runs along the St. Lawrence, opposes spending $800,000 for more studies, and will try to eliminate that item from the budget, his spokeswoman said.

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, both Democrats, have opposed the expansion project, which has been estimated to cost from $10 billion to $15 billion.

Environmentalists argue a major dredging program along the river would remove parts of some islands, and spoil some of the natural beauty of the region in an area where commercial shipping has already been in decline.

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