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