Ten Threats: Expanding the Seaway

  • A freighter leaving the Duluth harbor in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by many of the experts we surveyed
is dredging channels deeper and wider for larger ocean-going ships. In the 1950s, engineers
carved a shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence
River. The St. Lawrence Seaway was to make ports in cities such as Chicago and Duluth main
players in global commerce. Today, the Seaway operates at less than half its capacity.
That’s because only five percent of the world’s cargo fleet can fit through its locks and
channels. For decades, the shipping industry has wanted to make them bigger. David
Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes with a look at the idea of
letting bigger ships into the lakes. Lester Graham is our guide through the series.


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by many of the experts we surveyed
is dredging channels deeper and wider for larger ocean-going ships. In the 1950s, engineers
carved a shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence
River. The St. Lawrence Seaway was to make ports in cities such as Chicago and Duluth main
players in global commerce. Today, the Seaway operates at less than half its capacity.
That’s because only five percent of the world’s cargo fleet can fit through its locks and
channels. For decades, the shipping industry has wanted to make them bigger. David
Sommerstein reports:


(Sound of rumbling noise of front-loaders)


The port of Ogdensburg sits on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York State.
When the Seaway was built, local residents were promised an economic boom. Today
what Ogdensburg mostly gets is road salt.


(Sound of crashing cargo)


Road salt and a white mineral called Wallastonite – the Dutch use it to make ceramic tile.
Front-loaders push around mountains of the stuff. In all, the port of Ogdensburg
welcomes six freighters a year and employs just six people.


Other Great Lakes ports are much bigger, but the story is similar. They handle low-value
bulk goods – grain, ore, coal – plus higher value steel. But few sexy electronic goods
from Japan come through the Seaway, or the gijillion of knick-knacks from China or
South Korea.


James Oberstar is a Congressman from Duluth. He says there’s a reason why. A
dastardly coincidence doomed the Seaway.


“Just as the Seaway was under construction, Malcolm McLean, a shipping genius, hit on
the idea of moving goods in containers.”


Containers that fit right on trains and trucks. The problem was the ships that carry those
containers were already too big for the Seaway’s locks and channels.


“That idea of container shipping gave a huge boost of energy to the East Coast, Gulf
Coast, and West Coast ports, and to the railroads.”


Leaving Great Lakes ports behind ever since the regional shipping industry has wanted to
make the Seaway bigger.


The latest effort came in 2002, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the
economic benefits of expansion. The study said squeezing container ships through the
Seaway would bring a billion and a half dollars a year to ports like Chicago, Toledo, and
Duluth. But if you build it, would they come?


“Highly doubtful that container ships would come in. Highly doubtful.”


John Taylor is a transportation expert at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
He’s studied Seaway traffic patterns extensively. He says there would have to be “a sea
change” in global commerce.


“Rail is too competitive, too strong moving containers from the coast in and out say from
Montreal and Halifax and into Chicago and Detroit and so on, too cost-effective for it to
make sense for a ship to bring those same containers all the way to Chicago.”


The expansion study sparked a flurry of opposition across the Great Lakes. It failed to
mention the cost of replumbing the Seaway — an estimated 10 to 15 billion dollars. It
didn’t factor in invasive species that show up in foreign ships’ ballasts. Invasives already
cost the economy 5 billion dollars a year, and environmentalists said it glossed over the
ecological devastation of dredging and blasting a deeper channel.


Even the shipping industry has begun to distance itself from expansion. Steve Fisher
directs the American Great Lakes Ports Association.


“There was quite a bit of opposition expressed through the region, and in light of that
opposition we took stock of just how much and how strongly we felt on the issue and
quite frankly there just wasn’t a strong enough interest.”


Most experts now believe expansion won’t happen for at least another generation.
Environmentalists and other critics hope it won’t happen at all.


So instead, the Seaway is changing its tactics. Richard Corfe runs Canada’s side of the
waterway. He says the vast majority of Seaway traffic is actually between Great Lakes
ports, not overseas. So, the Seaway’s focus now is to lure more North American shippers
to use the locks and channels.


“Our efforts have to be towards maximizing the use of what we have now for the benefit
of both countries, the economic, environmental, and social benefit.”


Today, trucks and trains haul most goods from coastal ports to Great Lakes cities.
Shippers want to steal some of that cargo, take it off the roads and rails, and put it on
seaway ships headed for Great Lakes ports.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

French Fry Oil to Fuel Ships?

Two research vessels may be plying the shores of Lake Michigan next year using a unique form of biodiesel fuel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton has more:

Transcript

Two research vessels may be playing the shores of Lake Michigan next year using a unique form
of biodiesel fuel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:


The Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University has two research and
educational outreach vessels. Engineer Robert Udell would like to see the boats running on some form of
biodiesel fuel by next season. The idea he favors the most is gathering up all the used fryer oil
that campus eateries use for making french fries, then processing it to fuel the boats. Udell says
there’s only one side effect he’s aware of.


“You quite often get a french fry exhaust odor. I’ve been close to engines running on diesel
from fryer oil and it’s really not that noticeable.”


Udell says the fuel could also be shipped in from Chicago, but he prefers having a small
processing plant on campus. He says it could make the fuel more cheaply, and provide hands-on
learning opportunities for chemistry and engineering students.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tracy Samilton.