St.Lawrence Seaway Expansion May Have Devastating
June 13, 2002
WASHINGTON -- The
revival of a grandiose scheme to expand the St. Lawrence
Seaway has sparked fears of tumbling Great Lakes water
levels, toxic pollution and threats to the Thousand Islands.
Supporters, however, warn that the seaway -- parts of
which are nearly a century old -- may be doomed unless
it can attract the larger, ocean-going container ships
that now dominate global shipping.
Some members of the U.S. Congress dream of creating "America's
fourth coast" in the Great Lakes, turning sleepy Midwest
cities, such as Duluth, Minn., into world-class ports.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under a mandate from
Congress, is recommending in a preliminary study that
Canada and the United States launch a full feasibility
study, including detailed cost estimates and environmental
A draft copy of the report puts an estimated price tag
of $10-billion (U.S.) on the megaproject. That would cover
the cost of making the seaway as deep as the Panama Canal,
dredging more than a dozen ports in places like Hamilton
and Cornwall, Ont., and installing new locks throughout
the system, which stretches 3,700 kilometres from Lake
Superior to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The U.S. report offers the tantalizing prospect of up
to $1.4-billion a year in economic benefits as the expanded
waterway and year-round operation lures ships from around
While proponents see an economic boon, critics on both
sides of the border are warning that those unproven riches
could come at a steep environmental price.
Foremost among the concerns is the fear that digging
channels up to three metres deeper in spots could drop
water levels by a third of a metre or more in some of
the Great Lakes, which are already near historic lows.
"Do we really want to make the channels deeper just
to see all that water flow out?" asked Stephanie Weiss,
executive director of Save the River in Clayton, N.Y.,
in the heart of the Thousand Islands.
Especially vulnerable are Lake Huron and Georgian Bay,
environmentalists say, because one of the shallowest passages
in the system is in the St. Clair River, which links Lake
Huron to downstream Lake Erie via Lake St. Clair and the
Ms. Weiss also warned that the bigger container ships
might not be able to fit through some of the narrower
channels in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence
"You're talking about removing islands to get these
ships through," she said, noting that the container
ships are about a third larger than the existing fleet
of lakers in the seaway.
Those larger ships could destroy wildlife habitat and
damage tourism, she added.
Modernization also would require dredging 15 Canadian
and U.S. ports at the risk of stirring up dormant toxic
chemicals in places such as Hamilton, Cornwall, Ont.,
Messina, N.Y., and Cleveland.
More disturbing is that the Corps seems to be adopting
a "Field of Dreams" strategy by promoting
a project in the hope of luring new business, said Rick
Spencer of the Washington-based National Wildlife Federation.
"No matter how much shipping interests may want the
Corps to try, the Great Lakes will never be America's
fourth coast," he said.
The heyday of the waterway was in 1970s, when soaring
shipments of wheat and coal were moving east, and iron
ore from Quebec and Labrador was going to steel mills
in the Midwest.
Today, 43 years after the seaway's completion, those
bulk commodities still dominate traffic, but the volume
has been steadily dwindling.
"The biggest impediment to the seaway is that we're
not serving the fastest-growing segment of the industry
-- containers," argued Guy Véronneau, president
of St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., a private company
that runs the Canadian side of the waterway under a long-term
contract from Transport Canada.
The U.S. proposal would see sections of the seaway and
other connecting waterways deepened by as much as three
metres to 10.5 metres to accommodate so-called "Panamax"
container ships -- the standard for passage through the
Panama canal. Those ships are up to 305 metres long and
33 metres wide, compared with the current seaway maximum
of 225 metres and 24 metres.
Mr. Véronneau wants Ottawa to pick up half the $20-million
tab for the feasibility study.
"We are talking big money and we need a serious study,"
he said, adding that making the expansion justifiable
"on a shipper basis" alone may be unrealistic.
But it could be worthwhile, if the seaway becomes an alternative
to new highways and railways over the next 20 years, he
The Canadian government is apparently open to exploring
the project, but hasn't yet committed to paying for the
"Canada supports the aim of the U.S. study, which
is to improve commercial navigation in the Great Lakes
and along the seaway system, while ensuring the economic,
social and environmental interests are fully considered,"
said Rodney Moore, spokesman for the Canadian embassy
in Washington. "Navigation along this corridor is
key to a healthy Canadian economy."
Ottawa has quietly formed an intergovernmental group
to review the U.S. proposals, including officials from
Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Foreign Affairs
and International Trade and Environment Canada.
U.S. officials insist any environmental impacts will
be carefully studied and mitigated.
Wayne Schloop, project manager of the Great Lakes navigation
study at the Corps of Engineers in Detroit, said the feasibility
study would include estimates of the costs of dealing
with toxic sludge as well as any environmental impacts.
"We think there are preliminary benefits to be had
by modernizing the seaway, but that's not a well-defined
term," he said. "A lot of detailed economic work
will have to be done to determine that: 'Yes, there's
a market out there.' "
The Corps expects to finish its preliminary report this
month, and submit it to headquarters in Washington.
If Canada agrees to co-sponsor, the full feasibility
study could get under way as early as October, he said.