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Ice puts a chill on plans for extended shipping Corps seeking $20m study of Seaway upgrades
Marc Heller
Times Washington

WASHINGTON - People who want to see big container ships ply the Great Lakes are stuck in a box. To justify billions of dollars toward building larger locks and deeper channels, the St. Lawrence Seaway probably would have to extend its season into winter. But extending the navigation season could be tougher, in some ways, than expanding the system. That's because experts have never found a way to keep the shipping channels in the St. Lawrence River from freezing over in winter. If shipping continued well into the winter, ice would damage locks and the wake from passing ships would heave chunks of ice onto the shore, industry sources and environmentalists have long contended.

And not everyone wants to break up the ice. The New York Power Authority relies on a solid, stable ice cover to maintain a steady flow of water to the Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena and to prevent ice floes from damaging the dam. Every winter, the Power Authority puts huge logs in the river and chains them to the bottom in order to help the ice form properly; ships cannot pass through once the logs are deployed.

Indeed, ice was the main culprit in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' last failed effort at extending shipping through the winter. In 1978, the Corps proposed stationing 30 new icebreakers throughout the Seaway, deploying new ice booms that would be friendlier to shipping, building "ice anchoring islands" and dredging millions of yards of the St. Lawrence River to slow the river's current and stabilize the ice. That Corps effort fell apart amid opposition from New York. The latest Corps plan may be headed toward a similar fate.

Today, the Corps and others are taking a different tack as they push for a new $20 million study of navigation improvements on the Great Lakes and Seaway. Winter navigation is one idea, they say. So are bigger locks and deeper channels and maybe a chance to handle the kind of container ships that serve big East Coast ports - the Seaway's main competitors. Or maybe the system just needs minor improvements, say the study's supporters.

Critics say container shipping, winter navigation and bigger locks all go together. While the Corps could recommend lesser measures, doing so would betray the agency's history as a builder and a digger on America's rivers. The minimalist approach is unlikely, said Rick Spencer, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, which has joined Save the River in fighting the Corps's proposed study. "That'll increase the pressure to do more. That's the way they historically think," Mr. Spencer said.

While the Corps's reconnaissance study earlier this year - a prelude to a full feasibility study - did not endorse winter navigation, it implied that the season should be extended, Mr. Spencer said. It also proposed expanding the system. Mr. Spencer wrote a thesis on the last fight over winter navigation, for a master's degree at Cornell University, Ithaca. The new study's supporters say the Seaway needs to improve in order to keep up with Philadelphia, New York and other ports. The introduction of international container shipping would also correct a mistake from the system's founding in 1959.

Containers became the industry norm several years after the Seaway opened, and the region missed out. Most Great Lakes cargo is handled in bulk. Containers can be loaded straight from ships onto trucks or rail cars, cutting labor costs and time. Perhaps the biggest supporter of container shipping on the Great Lakes is Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But he has allies among Midwest port directors who say a study will at least offer guidance on the subject. "I don't think it's impossible," said W. Steven Olinek, deputy director of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority in Michigan. "Just saying you don't need containers isn't based on any findings." For instance, Mr. Olinek said, some officials have proposed shipping garbage in containers on barges from Toronto to Michigan, which might be a twice-weekly operation. Killing the study now would simply leave questions unanswered, Mr. Olinek said. "I'm troubled by people who want to discard it. It's important to let the study be done."

The Detroit Port Authority is also pushing for a longer shipping season, although Mr. Olinek said he has doubts about year-round shipping. Some goods already move year-round in southerly sections of the lakes. "It's hard to conceive of a winter shipping season now," Mr. Olinek said. Two obstacles block the way: the inability for ships to pass through the Power Authority's booms and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.'s contention that the locks were not build to handle rough winter conditions.

The Seaway Corp. also performs maintenance on the locks in winter. And while winters have been milder the past several years, no one can be sure those conditions will persist. Some meteorologists say the warmer trend of the past decade or more shows signs of reversing, based on ocean temperatures and sunspots. If nothing else, assessing the ice situation is unscientific; Environment Canada stopped keeping track of ice depth on the Seaway in the mid-1990s. That was about the time winters really started warming, a spokesman said.

The New York Power Authority has the same concerns about winter navigation and opposes widening the Seaway but will not take a position on the navigation study, said a spokesman, Michael Saltzman. Beating the ice is all part of trying to put the Seaway on par with New York or Philadelphia. But that notion is folly, say some in the industry. A shipping agent in Montreal recently labeled the idea "crazy," not a surprising position from a city whose port stands to lose business if the Seaway expands. The contention in Montreal is that no one would choose to send goods by ship through the Seaway when they could unload it onto trucks or trains in Montreal and send it west faster.

Montreal was also one of the sources of opposition to the Seaway's creation, out of fear it would boost the rival city of Toronto. So were railroad companies, which industry sources say could be counted on to oppose any expansion. Opposition from Montreal demonstrates the trouble Canada seems to have with the navigation study. Transport Canada is pushing ideas short of Seaway expansion, such as keeping container shipping confined to Montreal and simply loading goods onto smaller lake vessels there. Even Mr. Olinek does not give container shipping great odds. Shipping rates on the lakes do not appear to make container shipping viable, and railroad companies would do whatever they could to make it even less attractive, Mr. Olinek said.

Daimler-Chrysler recently studied shipping by container between Toledo and Detroit and found the idea economically unfeasible, he said. But Mr. Olinek still will not rule out the idea. "I think we need to get into the 21st century and get what improvements we can," he said. The Army Corps study is hanging on a funding decision by Congress, which may act in late January or early February. Canada and the United States are also discussing possible changes to the original proposal, and officials say they probably will make an announcement in January.
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