Critics fear expanding seaway could be trouble
for Great Lakes
WASHINGTON -- Expanding the St. Lawrence Seaway to allow larger oceangoing freighters
into the Great Lakes may make good economic sense for the
shipping industry, but it could be a disaster for Michigan's coastlines.
That's why a proposed study by the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the seaway's future
and the possibility of expanding the locks has drawn such
fire from environmentalists and citizens groups.
They say the $20 million, five-year study, which still
must be approved by Congress, gives the shipping industry
cover in its bid to expand the length of the locks along
the Welland Canal in Canada.
"Some things you don't have to study, let alone spend
$20 million dollars on," said Cameron Davis, executive
director of the Lake Michigan Federation, an environmental
group. "You just know it's a bad idea."
But the Army Corps said the study is designed to decide
whether it makes economic, engineering or environmental
sense to update the seaway's complex system of canals,
rivers and lakes.
"The seaway, if you look at it as a navigation system,
is just like any other transportation system," said
Wayne Schloop, the Army Corps' project manager for the
study. "Sooner or later, it needs some repairs just
like our highway system or our rail system."
A preliminary reconnaissance report expected later this
month from the Army Corps likely will recommend that a
long-term feasibility study be conducted.
A meeting scheduled for today in Washington between U.S. and Canadian transportation and seaway
officials could help determine the future of the study
-- if Canada will foot half the bill for it. Canada has not yet agreed to do so, even
though most of the locks are on the Canadian side of the
The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system runs from the
Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minn., on the shores of Lake Superior. At 2,038 nautical miles, it takes
more than eight days to traverse the system. Along the
waterway, which borders the United States and Canada, there are 19 locks for ships to maneuver
Shipping and port officials say the study is an important
tool in determining the future of shipping on the Great Lakes.
"This study proposes to look at ways of improving
the system," said Steven Olinek, deputy director
of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, which operates
ports in Detroit and Ecorse. "It's logical to
assume that a 40-year-old piece of infrastructure needs
improving. The study may just come out and say it's not
environmentally feasible to do this or that. Let's not
kill the baby before it's born."
The point of greatest concern is the aging Welland Canal, which has eight locks and links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The 27-mile canal, located in Canada and running parallel to the Niagara River, isn't big enough to accommodate modern
oceangoing vessels. Its locks range in age from about
40 to 70 years old. Already, there have been structural
failures along the canal, requiring a major rehabilitation
Experts say expanding the canal to accept 1,000-foot ships
could cost between $10 billion and $15 billion. Currently,
the canal can accept smaller ocean-going ships.
And there are equally distressed areas at other points
along the seaway, observers note. Channels and harbors
enough, say shippers, and there are plans to rehabilitate
the locks at Sault Ste. Marie to ensure the 1,000-foot,
so-called panamax, ships that travel the lakes can continue
to do so.
The13 panamax freighters in the Great Lakes cannot leave the system because they're
too large to fit through the locks at the Welland Canal. Instead they do most of their work
shipping iron ore and other products through Lake Superior and down to lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie.
Environmentalists say those 13 are enough, noting that
any efforts to refurbish the shipping industry on the
lakes, including dredging and draining harbors and rivers,
could stir up polluted sediments.
"To really expand shipping in the Great Lakes, they would have to do significant
damage to the Great Lakes," damage that would likely result in the introduction
of new invasive species, said Davis. "Damage that would cause more
water to flow out of the Great Lakes faster, and damage that could destroy
our fragile coastal habitats."
Since 1959, more than 2 billion tons of cargo -- valued
at an estimated $300 billion -- have moved through the
Almost 50 percent of the traffic travels to and from overseas
ports, especially those in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The shippers who work on the Great Lakes say they are putting themselves at
risk in pushing the study, but feel it's worth the risk.
They say opening the door to ocean container ships and
competition from foreign products such as iron ore from
Brazil could put them out of business.
"What is the harm in knowing what we can and cannot
do?" said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents the
shippers on the Great Lakes. "Sure we would like to have
the channels be deeper so our ships can load more cargo.
The study is going to tell us whether that's possible
or not or whether it would be feasible to expand the locks."