Environmentalists Contest New Giant Tankers In Great
The Toronto Star
June 10, 2002
An American proposal to squeeze giant ocean tankers the
size of almost three football fields into the Great Lakes
system is making waves in Canada.
While members of the shipping industry are applauding the
report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an economic
lifeline to world trade, environmentalists are sounding
Bringing the giant boats up the narrow St. Lawrence Seaway
and through the channels connecting the five Great Lakes
could be compared to passing a bolder through a delicate
vein. It would require intensive operations on the whole
system: dredging, widening and rebuilding locks.
"The environmental impacts of this are huge," said Mary
Muter, chair of the Georgian Bay Association's environmental
The engineers' report, to be presented to the U.S. Congress,
outlines a number of structural changes required to stretch
the 70-year-old system so it can accept giant Panamax tankers
that now only make it as far as Montreal.
Included are a combination of options: deepening the connecting
channels between the Great Lakes by 3 metres; stretching
the locks on both the St. Lawrence River and the Welland
Canal by about 9 metres in width and more than 120 metres
in length; and deepening individual American ports to allow
for the entry of such massive vessels.
The report predicts that would increase the loads of goods
floating from the Atlantic as far as Duluth, Minn., on the
tip of Lake Superior by more than half in 60 years — from
232 million tonnes two years ago to 357 million tonnes in
2060 — transforming lakeside ports such as Detroit and Chicago
into major shipping centres.
The activity in Toronto's port would likely more than double,
said Mike Doran, the Toronto Port Authority's director of
"We would become a very important port. As would the rest
of the ports on the Great Lakes."
The locks on both the Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence,
completed in 1932 and 1959 respectively, were built to accommodate
seafaring vessels at the time called "handies."
They measure up to 213 metres in length and sink almost
8 metres below the water surface, with loads of 25,000 tonnes.
Since then, the ships have ballooned in size, stretching
to more than 300 metres and pulling a draft of 13 metres
under more than double the load.
at stake here is the competitiveness of the Great
Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system.'Ray JohnstonChamber
of Maritime Commerce
Panamax vessels are not entirely unknown to the Great Lakes.
The giant vessels, or "salties," can navigate through the
channel connecting Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, and through
the locks of Sault Ste. Marie into Lake Superior. But they
can't nose their way down the St. Clair River or through
the locks of the Welland Canal or St. Lawrence River to
access the ocean.
"When the seaway was opened, roughly half the ships in the
world could use the system. Today, only about 10 per cent
of the fleet can pass through," said Ray Johnston, president
of the Chamber of Maritime Commerce in Ottawa, whose members
include shippers, the St. Lawrence Seaway, ports and shipowners.
"The ultimate question is what's the cost of not doing it?
There's been a worrying trend towards declining tonnage
in the last decade or so."
By contrast, he said, global shipping traffic is surging
with increasing international trade. "What's at stake here
is the competitiveness of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence
Seaway system," Johnston said.
The proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in its
infant stages. If approved by headquarters, it will be passed
on to Congress seeking endorsement for its step into adolescence
— a five-year, $20 million intensive study, said the report's
manager, Wayne Schloop.
But given that Congress commissioned the original study,
it seems likely to move ahead.
Canadian support is also vital, given that the system is
joint territory and 13 of the 15 locks in question are Canadian-owned.
A condition of continuing to the feasibility phase is finding
a co-sponsor, which the U.S. army corps hopes to find in
The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which runs the
operation of the locks on the river, has already given its
nod of support and is currently lobbying Transport Canada
to rustle up $10 million toward the project, said Camille
Répanier, vice-president of strategic and business development
for the non-profit organization.
Although Schloop cautions that the plans would see years
of intensive engineering, and economic and environmental
study, groups on both sides of the border are already raising
Stephanie Weiss, executive director of Save the River, an
American group formed more than 20 years ago, called spending
money on a further study "wasteful."
Then there's the multitude of environmental issues: the
dredging of animal habitat, the threat of oil spills in
winter and the widened channels sucking down water like
"There have never been any withdrawals of water of this
magnitude discussed before," said Muter of the Georgian
"This is a very valuable resource. If we start to withdraw
water permanently unnecessarily, that sets a dangerous precedent.
We're saying don't do the feasibility study."
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