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Great Lakes Article:

Environmental groups, Army Corps at odds on Great Lakes plan

Steve Tomasko
AshlandDaily Press
Posted 09/05/2002

More exotic species, loss of habitat and other environmental problems could result from an Army Corps of Engineer's plan to dredge bigger channels and ports from the St. Lawrence Seaway to Duluth, according to some environmental groups.

The Corps' "Reconnaissance Report: Great Lakes Navigation System Review " is a draft proposal to increase the size of ships that can navigate Great Lake's waters.

Groups such as Great Lakes United and the National Wildlife Federation oppose the plan, or call for at least an independent review of the proposal before it goes any farther.

The ACOE plan will determine the feasibility of deepening ports and connecting channels on the Great Lakes to allow access of Panamax-sized ships into the basin.

This means dredging 35-foot deep channels and widening some areas from Montreal to Duluth to allow the bigger ships.

The National Wildlife Federation opposes the project for several reasons.

"We think there's not an economic justification and a potential for great environmental damage," said NWF director of water resources Tim Eder.

First there are the direct effects like dredging, which could stir up contaminated sediments. Many port areas have sediments contaminated with PCBs, mercury and other pollutants.

Dredging and widening channels will also cause direct habitat loss for fish and waterfowl, Eder said.

Another problem is that of exotic species. Critters like the zebra mussel and round goby invaded the Great Lakes by being brought in the ballast water of ships. Zebra mussels have caused millions of dollars of economic damage by clogging industrial and municipal pipes.

Eder said larger and more ships would mean more problems with exotic species. There has been work on trying to stop that problem, for example, by having ships exchange their ballast water in the ocean before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway. But that has not completely stopped the invasions.

"We don't think it makes any sense to increase shipping until we get a handle on the situation," Eder said.

Another potential problem, Eder said, is lowering lake levels. By dredging deeper channels, flow will increase, causing lower lake levels through the chain.

There are legitimate reasons to study the navigation system of the Great Lakes, he said. The locks are aging and repairs or upgrades are necessary. However, Eder said the Corps is going way beyond merely fixing what's broken.

Wayne Schloop, project manager for the ACOE in Detroit, said the study is still in its preliminary stages. The draft study was completed in June and sent to ACOE headquarters, which will review it.

If approved there, the Corps would then look to Congress to fund a more detailed feasibility study, which would look in detail at economic impacts, environmental impacts and engineering aspects of the proposal.

Schloop countered the NWF concerns.

As far as lower lake levels, he said they would not deepen channels without corresponding mitigation. They would have to maintain the status quo as far as lake levels are concerned, he said.

Schloop agrees that invasive exotic species are a problem, and it's something they've solicited help on from the environmental community. He said they can continue to work on solutions of exchanging and treating ballast water.

Schloop said the Corps would test sediments before dredging, and determine if they were contaminated and feasible to remove.

Like any other agency, they would have to follow state and federal environmental guidelines when dealing with polluted areas.

The benefits of the proposal could be increased trade, Schloop said. The navigation system is getting old. The locks in the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls, were built in the 1930s. The locks in the Seaway are about 45 years old.

Like any other transportation system, it needs to be upgraded occasionally, Schloop said.

The next step for the proposal, if headquarters approves it, is potentially partnering with Canada, since many locks and channels are sometimes jointly owned. He said they should have a response from headquarters by fall.

Eder and others hope to stop the plan before it gets to the next step. He said the feasibility study itself would cost about $20 million.

The decision on funding the feasibility study could come next month. Congress will decide whether to appropriate funds in the Water Resources Development Act, which would allow the draft study to move on to the full feasibility stage. In Canada, the federal government will decide whether to be the study co-sponsor and contribute a match to the U.S. funds.

Schloop said it was too early to determine a price tag of the improvements, should the study go ahead. The draft report mentions a "ballpark" construction figure of $10 billion, just to replace 15 locks at the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence River.

Besides the potential environmental impacts, the economic benefits of the plan might be overstated, according to Jennifer Nalbone, habitat biodiversity coordinator for Great Lakes United.

GLU is a coalition of organizations from the United States and Canada concerned with the long-term health of the Great Lakes.

Nalbone talked about the Corps project recently at the Council Lodge on the Bad River Reservation.

She said the economics part of the study is flawed. The Corps is using the same methodology they used in a study of navigation for the Upper Mississippi, which was criticized in an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences.

"So we're going to find that the economics for the Great Lakes study is flawed as well," Nalbone said.

She said it's likely that attracting larger vessels would only attract trade from other United States and Canadian ports, that there would be no net gain for the economy. And that would happen "at the expense of the health of the Great Lakes," she said.

The GLU, like the NWF, would like The NAS or some other group to perform an independent review of the Corps draft plan.

Nalbone agrees that the Great Lakes navigation system is ageing and needs to be looked at, but like Eder, she said the Corps is only looking at one option.

GLU has proposed other options which include repairing or replacing locks, without deepening channels and ports.

The Corps has not even taken into consideration economic effects on the fishing industry of letting in more exotic species.

GLU wrote to the Corps and made specific recommendations, including:

•The "wider, deeper channels" intent be abandoned immediately

•The Corps focus its efforts on studying how to reduce the overall impact of shipping trade on the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River ecosystem

•The feasibility of restricting foreign ships to the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River be examined

Eder said they hope the Corps study does not get funded for the next step.

"It's not a good use of our tax money," he said. "We don't think Congress should fund this study, congress should kill this."

To find more information

For more information on the Army Corps of Engineer's Reconnaissance Report: Great Lakes Navigation System Review, see the following websites:

• ACOE's Detroit District:

• Great Lakes United:

• National Wildlife Federation:

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