When you think of all the goods carried in and out of the Great Lakes region, you mostly think of trucks and trains.
But millions of tons of cargo travel by boat – freighters from the Atlantic Ocean that enter the Lakes by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The first freighter of the 53rd Seaway season eased through the locks in Montreal this week. David Sommerstein reports on the Seaway’s delicate balance between the economy and the environment.
[sound up at lock: cameras clicking]
“That’s it. Squeeze in tighter. Yeah, good.”
Cameras click at St. Lambert lock on the St. Lawrence River. Photographers jostle as four men in suits pose. Behind them, the Dutch-flagged “Avonborg” rumbles in and ties up.
One of the men, Terry Johnson, turns and notices it’s carrying dozens of giant wind turbine blades. He’s psyched – it could have been road salt.
“Wind turbines have been increasingly coming in and it’s nice to be able to see something that is visual. This is good.”
Johnson is the U.S. chief of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The windmill parts bound for Indiana aren’t just a good photo opp. They’re the perfect image the Seaway wants to project these days – that it’s the greenest, cheapest way to transport goods. Shipping is far more fuel efficient than trucking.
Ross Fletcher of BBC Chartering contracted this ship.
“Those 75 blades represent 75 truckloads that aren’t going to travel between Montreal and the U.S. Midwest, so we’re taking 75 truckloads off the highways.”
The Seaway’s been trying to reinvent itself since it was built in the 1950s.
International trade leapfrogged the Seaway’s channel size to even bigger and deeper draft ships, and to using containers that fit on trucks and trains for fast delivery.
The Seaway was left to move bulk cargo. U.S. grain and iron ore to Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Steel and other raw materials into the Midwest.
“Rolled steel, coiled steel, and other types of steel products used by manufacturers in the Great Lakes basin.”
Steven Olinek directs the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority. Citing a recent Michigan Sea Grant study on the economic impact of the Great Lakes, Olinek say the Seaway and the industries it supports are still irreplaceable.
“I don’t think this economy could withstand losing a million and a half jobs or 62 billion dollars in wages and the benefits those provide.”
But environmentalists say those numbers don’t reflect the damage shipping has done to the Great Lakes.
Jennifer Caddick directs the regional green group, Save the River. She says the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway flooded wetlands, polluted drinking water, and introduced most of the Great Lakes’ 186 invasive species – stowaways in the foreign freighters’ ballast. Critters like the zebra mussel and the round goby have cost the Great Lakes’ economy billions.
“So when you add up the benefits and subtract those costs, we find out that shipping really isn’t as big of a driver as the industry would like us to believe.”
Manufacturing has endured a long, steady decline in the Great Lakes, and that’s unlikely to change.
Jennifer Read co-authored the Michigan Sea Grant study. She says that means tourism, recreation, and quality of life will be increasingly important.
“And for quality of life, you need quality of environment.”
The St. Lawrence Seaway is making the case it is still relevant… and that it is green. It has implemented new rules to keep out invasive species. Its shippers are investing in new, cleaner fleets. So for the Seaway, those wind turbines on that first freighter of the season were right on message.
For The Environment Report, I’m David Sommerstein in Montreal.