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St.Lawrence Seaway Expansion May Have Devastating Ecological Impacts

Monday, June 13, 2002 
Toronto Globe

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 impact tests.

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 the world.

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 Detroit River.

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 River.

"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 said.

The Canadian government is apparently open to exploring the project, but hasn't yet committed to paying for the study.

"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.

This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.

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