The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter, workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how it’s going:
The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes
and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more
than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-
million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway
functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great
Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter,
workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories
down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how
If you’ve never seen a lock before, it’s basically a long, concrete channel filled with water. A freighter goes in one end. Gates close in front and behind it, so the water level can be raised or lowered to move the ship up or down, and out the other end.
Here, that channel’s empty and dry and you can see how huge this lock really is. I get a queasy feeling as I ease onto the steep metal stairs. I can see the lock floor 80 feet below me. Maintenance director Jesse Hinojosa radios down to the bottom. He says workers lose track of how often they climb the stairs.
“We should get a good count of that. They go up and down all day long on it.”
(sound of steps)
I take it step by step. There’s a temporary roof overhead. The only light comes from floodlamps.
The lock gates are open so they can be worked on, so at one end of the lock are stoplogs – stacked steel that temporarily keeps the river out. Still, some water rushes through and has to be pumped out.
(sound of water rushing)
Paul Giometta tops off the fuel tank of one of 10 furnaces that heat the area. He wears a fleece hat and big yellow boots. During the shipping season, he helps guide freighters’ in and out of the lock. But in the winter, he shifts to a totally different line of work.
Giometta: “Chipping concrete, stuff like that, painting, whatever has to be done.”
Sommerstein: “It’s an old lock, there’s a lot of chipping concrete.”
Giometta: “Oh, yeah, there’s no end to that. What you fix today, years later you start all over again.”
Winter maintenance has been an annual job on this lock since the Seaway system opened in 1959. The scale of the work is almost impossible to wrap your mind around. To raise or lower a freighter, the lock flushes 22 million gallons of water in just 7 minutes. It uses gears, valves, tunnels, and huge gates to accomplish the task. Most of that equipment is original, now almost 50 years old. Every winter, it all has to be checked out and tested. Some parts are replaced.
Tom Levine directs the Seaway’s engineering department. He points to the lock’s crumbling concrete walls. He says that’s one of the biggest problems.
“The bad stuff, where the bad concrete is, you take a hammer, it sounds like a hollow wall, and these walls where you’re looking at are like 60 feet into the backfill. I mean, solid concrete, I mean, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Albert Jacquez holds his hardhat and looks up at the walls. He’s the St. Lawrence Seaway’s U.S. Administrator, based in Washington. His demeanor is like that of a homeowner wincing at his rickety porch or rotting roof.
“Well, what I see is a system that has worked well for half a century, but that in the near future needs a major overhaul.”
There are 22 other locks in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Most are owned by Canada. A binational study is underway to answer a critical question: how much will it cost to keep repairing all these locks and other infrastructure so they work for another 50 years? Jacquez says the answers the study finds could determine whether the Seaway gets a facelift or is left as is until it fails.
“Whatever those decisions are will be what they are, whether it’s ‘we’re gonna invest or we’re not gonna invest’, but they at least need the baseline numbers so that they know what they have ahead of them.”
But the study has been delayed. Lawmakers will have to wait at least a year longer than they expected because the project is so big. And President Bush has cut funding for the study in his budget plan by more than a half, which could delay it even further.
Meanwhile, keeping the Seaway open becomes more of a challenge every year. Jacquez says it’s like an old car.
“As it ages, we have to spend more and more time on it because we have more work to do.”
And workers face a hard deadline. Before spring shipping begins, where we’re standing will be flooded under 30 feet of water, so the lock can be ready to welcome the first freighter of the season.
For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.