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Ideas to improve shipping worry environmentalists
Great Lakes plan dredges up fears
Tom Henry
Toledo Blade

The Great Lakes are at a crossroads that pits efforts to dramatically improve shipping against environmentalists fearful that years of ecological improvements to the world’s largest body of fresh water could be lost forever.

The outcome of this emerging debate could be a defining moment not only for the Great Lakes but also for major port cities such as Toledo, home to one of the shallowest - and heavily dredged - harbors on the lakes.

From iron ore to grain, bulk items are moved cost-effectively on the lakes. The spin-off gives the Midwest economy a shot in the arm and helps keep the region an affordable place to live.

But despite that importance, the navigation system between the lakes - the St. Lawrence Seaway - has barely changed since it opened in the 1950s.

While no firm proposal to improve the channel through dredging is on the table yet, an initial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study authorized by Congress in 1999 has been completed in draft form. It is under review at the corps’ headquarters in Washington.

The results of the study have not been released because it is pending review.

While modernizing the Great Lakes shipping channel through dredging might seem inevitable as North America’s population rises and the world’s global economy continues to evolve, the issue goes a lot deeper than that - so to speak.

Dredging a deeper and wider passageway scares environmentalists who question whether such a massive project - potentially costing more than $10 billion and stirring up polluted sediment for years - could halt much of the cleanup progress made over the past 30 years.

The outcome of this emerging debate could have ramifications for years.

"We’re in a global marketplace," James Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said. "If we want Toledo to grow and prosper, we need to upgrade the shipping channel."

Yet, activists believe more is at stake than just shipping.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that former President Richard Nixon and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed in 1972 is often cited as a turning point for Lake Erie’s multi-billion dollar recreation industry.

Sewage plants spent billions curbing phosphorus that helped algae thrive, while industry cut back on toxic releases. In less than a generation, Lake Erie rebounded from a near-dead body of water to a thriving fishing capital.

Now, as U.S. and Canadian officials say they want to build upon their cleanup efforts, they find themselves in a quandary about the shipping channel - especially with forecasts for movement of cargo to increase significantly by 2020.

Davis Helvarg, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, likened the situation to having a road network that never went beyond two-lane highways.

"Regrettably, I continue to see a struggle to maintain what we have [if the status quo remains]," said Mr. Helvarg, spokesman for a trade group called American Great Lakes Ports.

The Great Lakes channel was not built for the large fleet of ships that comprise a huge portion of today’s shipping market - those large trans-oceanic vessels moving goods between continents. The St. Lawrence Seaway is used primarily by smaller lake freighters and a limited number of ocean-bound vessels carrying bulk materials, such as coiled steel.

East Coast ports handle most of the containerized shipments that could be coming and going from Great Lakes .

"There’s a tremendous market right here," Mr. Hartung said. "Essentially, our transportation dollars are pretty much being exported."

Environmental activists are concerned that chemicals recirculated in the lakes by dredging would have an adverse affect on lake biology.

Plus, a bigger fleet of ships could exacerbate a problem that the United States and Canada don’t have under control - invasive species from other parts of the world that get carried into the lakes in ballast water wiping out native species.

Then, there are national security issues.

Toledo and other Great Lakes ports would need the same type of heightened security that has been enacted along oceanic and Gulf of Mexico ports if more easier-to-conceal crates of goods enter the system, he said.

"For anyone to say there aren’t going to be incredible challenges, it would be so naïve," Mr. Hartung said.

Now that the 1999 study is completed, the next step could be authorization of a $20 million feasibility study that would take about five years. The costs would be split between the United States and Canada, according to Wayne Schloop, project manager at the corps district office in Detroit.

Much of the viability - and debate - of the project will center around how much officials would agree to have the channel dug beyond the current minimum depth of 26 feet, 3 inches along the seaway and 25 feet, 5 inches in the lakes.

Thirty-five feet was used for initial study purposes, but the corps is "not close to settling on the depth," Mr. Schloop said. The $10 billion estimate covers what could conceivably be done to finish the project by 2020, barring no major obstacles.

Mr. Schloop said he recognizes ecological concerns, but said the lakes are "losing relevance now in terms of accommodating a large part of the world fleet."

"We have to ask whether we’re going to sacrifice further progress for the promise of enhanced commerce," Tim Eder of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor said.

Mr. Eder said he respects shipping’s role and agrees that aging locks should be rebuilt.

But he said it’s "almost beyond our comprehension how many problems will be posed" if the issue moves forward.

More articles on this subject »
Alien species named lakes’ top enemy 10/19/2002
Tight U.S. budget crimps Great Lakes research 10/18/2002
Assembly muses over Great Lakes ecological quirks 10/17/2002
Wetlands enhancement along Great Lakes is bills’ objective 10/03/2002
2 bills aim to protect Lake Erie wetlands 10/02/2002

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