A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences, and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences… and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
The St. Lawrence Seaway began as a dream – to make the Great Lakes as important a shipping destination as the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico seaboards. In fact, Seaway boosters used to call the Great Lakes the “Fourth Coast” of the United States. But when the array of locks and channels was built in the 1950s, Congress assured East Coast interests that a shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and America’s heartland wouldn’t hurt their business. Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar:
“The Seaway locks would be built to no greater dimension than the largest inland waterway locks of the 1930’s.”
In other words, the Seaway was outdated before it was built. Today less than thirty percent of the world’s cargo ships can squeeze into the Seaway.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ study is a first step to change that. It says the Seaway could generate up to one and half billion dollars a year more than it is now if larger ships – the ones that carry containers that fit right onto trucks and trains – could reach ports in the Midwest. Oberstar says that would mean an economic boon for Great Lakes states.
“Those are good jobs. Those are longshoreman jobs. And that economic activity means significant business for Great Lakes port cities.”
So along with other politicians and shippers in the Midwest, Oberstar wants the Corps to take the next step – a more detailed study, called a feasibility study – that would look at the nuts and bolts of expansion. It would cost some 20 million dollars.
But downstream, on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York, critics say any plans for expansion have a fatal flaw.
(sounds of water and fueling a boat)
Under a blazing sun in the part of the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands, Stephanie Weiss fuels up her boat at a gas dock.
(gas filling, and motor starting)
She pushes off and weaves among literally thousands of pine-covered islands that give the region its name.
“You can see how narrow things are and how close the islands are to each other.”
Weiss directs the environmental group Save The River that’s trying to stop Seaway expansion.
(motor slows and stops)
We stop in the part of the river channel called the American Narrows. It’s like the Seaway’s bottleneck. Ocean-going freighters the length of two football fields thread through here. To make room for anything bigger, Weiss says, might mean blasting away some of these islands and the homes perched on them.
“I can’t help noticing that there’s this enormous rock in between the Great Lakes and the Ocean. It’s the Laurentian Shield and it is what makes these islands. To pretend that this is just a coast that needs to be developed is unrealistic.”
Weiss says the idea of a Fourth Coast, with ports like Chicago and Duluth rivaling those of New York and San Francisco, is ridiculous.
Environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada, like Great Lakes United and Great Lakes Water Keepers, are also opposing expansion. And they say the Corps’ study frames the debate unfairly. It doesn’t factor in environmental and social effects the groups say would make the project seem less attractive: things like rising pollution, sensitive wildlife habitat, plummeting water levels. The Corps’ project manager Wayne Shloop says those things would be addressed in the feasibility study. Stopping before that, he says, means letting the system’s locks and channels waste away.
“So somebody needs to make a decision… is it in the federal interest to let the system degrade or is it in the federal interest between the United States and Canada to make some improvements?”
In the U.S., that somebody is Congress. Congress would need to appropriate half of the 20 million dollars for the study. Lawmakers could take up the issue in September.
New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton recently took a boatride down the American Narrows to learn more. She disembarked with questions, about oil spills, accidents, and the hazards of winter navigation.
“This isn’t by any means an easy decision, a cost-free decision, that there are tremendous consequences associated with it, so give me your pictures, give me your information, because I’ll use it to be in conversations with people who think it’s just an open and shut issue.”
The issue will be shut rather quickly if the Corps’ study can’t persuade Canada to join in. Canada would have to foot the other half of the bill for the feasibility study. But officials from Transport Canada say they’re in the “very preliminary stages” of studying the issue. And they’re listening to everyone from shippers to environmentalists to recreational boaters before they make a decision.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.