Looking Back on the “Slick of ’76”

  • Officials placed containment booms around the barge. Most of them failed to prevent the oil from floating downriver, contaminating dozens of miles of pristine shoreline. (Courtesy of the NY State Dept. of Conservation)

30 years ago, an oil barge ran aground in the St. Lawrence River. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of thick crude oil coated the shoreline of northern New York state. The accident remains one of the largest inland oil spills in the United States. It’s a reminder that freighters haul millions of gallons of toxic liquids across the Great Lakes. And many people worry about another spill. The GLRC’s David Sommerstein talked to witnesses of the 1976 spill:

Transcript

30 years ago, an oil barge ran aground in the St. Lawrence River. Hundreds
of thousands of gallons of thick crude oil coated the shoreline of northern New
York State. The accident remains one of the largest inland oil spills in the
United States. It’s a reminder that freighters haul millions of gallons of toxic
liquids across the Great Lakes. And many people worry about another spill.
The GLRC’s David Sommerstein talked to witnesses of the 1976 spill:


It was really foggy that morning. Bob Smith awoke to two sounds:


“You could hear the anchor chains going down, and next thing we know
there was a young Coast Guard guy knocking on the front door.”


The Coast Guard guy had driven up, asking around for a missing barge.
Smith remembered the anchor chains echoing across the water that woke
him up. He went outside to look.


(Sound of walking outside)


Thirty years later, Smith lives amidst cozy cottages on manicured lawns in
the heart of the touristy Thousand Islands.


“Just right about straight out there. See where that boat’s coming up there
now?”


That’s where a barge carrying oil from Venezuela had dropped anchor after
running aground. That morning Smith watched crude as thick as mud drift
out of sight downriver:


“If you’re born and raised here on the river, you don’t like to see anything go
in the river that doesn’t belong there.”


The Coast Guard placed booms in the water, but the oil quickly spilled over.
It carried 50 miles downstream. It oozed as far as 15 feet into the river’s
marshes. Tom Brown was the point man for New York’s Department of
Environmental Conservation. He says the spill couldn’t have come at a
worse time for wildlife:


“All the young fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, furbearers, were coming off the
nests and were being born.”


Thousands of birds and fish suffocated in black goo. As images of
devastation flashed on national TV, the spill killed the tourism season, too.
It was a summer with no swimming, no fishing, no dipping your feet in the
water at sunset. Really, it was a summer with no river.


(Sound of river at Chalk’s dock)


30 years later, everyone still remembers the acrid smell:


“When I woke up in the middle of the night and I could smell oil, I was
afraid I had an oil leak in my house.”


Dwayne Chalk’s family has owned a marina on the St. Lawrence for
generations. Chalk points to a black stripe of oil on his docks, still there
three decades later, and he’s still bitter:


“The Seaway has done this area, well, I shouldn’t say that, it hasn’t done any
good. To me it hasn’t.”


The St. Lawrence Seaway opened the ports of the Great Lakes to Atlantic
Ocean freighters carrying cargoes of steel, ore, and liquid chemicals. It
generates billions of dollars a year in commerce, but it’s also brought
pollution and invasive species.


Anthropologist John Omohundro studied the social effects of the 1976 oil
spill. He says it helped awaken environmentalism in the Great Lakes:


“The spill actually raised people’s consciousness that the river could be a
problem in a number of areas, not just oil.”


Groups like Save the River and Great Lakes United began lobbying for
cleaner water and safer navigation in the years after the spill:


“If a vessel carrying oil or oil products were in that same type of ship today,
it would not be allowed in.”


Albert Jacquez is the outgoing administrator for the US side of the St. Lawrence
Seaway. The 1976 barge had one hull and gushed oil when it hit the rocks.
Today’s barges are mostly double-hulled and use computerized navigation.
Jacquez says a lot has changed to prevent spills:


“The ships themselves are different, the regulations that they have to follow are
different, and the inspections are different. Now does that guarantee? Well,
there are no guarantees, period.”


So if there is a spill, the government requires response plans for every part of
the Great Lakes. Ralph Kring leads training simulations of those plans for
the Coast Guard in Buffalo. Still, he says the real thing is different:


“You really can’t control the weather and the currents and all that. It’s definitely going to be a
challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a real live incident where
everyone’s trying to move as fast as they can and also as efficient as they
can.”


Critics question the ability to get responders to remote areas in time. They
also worry about spills in icy conditions and chemical spills that oil booms
wouldn’t contain.


(Sound of river water)


Back on the St. Lawrence River, Dwayne Chalk says the oil spill of 1976
has taught him it’s not if, it’s when, the next big spill occurs:


“You think about it all the time. Everytime a ship comes up through here,
you think what’s going to happen if that ship hits something.”


Chalk and everyone else who relies on the Great Lakes hope they’ll never
have to find out.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Cargo ‘Sweepings’ Called Into Question

Every year freighters wash two hundred million pounds of refuse into the Great Lakes leaving the equivalent of underwater gravel roads along shipping lanes. The practice is called “cargo sweeping” and it’s allowed in spite of U.S laws and an international treaty banning dumping in the lakes. The GLRC’s Charity Nebbe has more:

Transcript

Every year freighters wash two hundred million pounds of refuse into the
Great Lakes leaving the equivalent of underwater gravel roads along
shipping lanes. The practice is called “cargo sweeping” and it’s allowed
in spite of U.S. laws and an international treaty banning dumping in the
lakes. The GLRC’s Charity Nebbe has more:


The dumping occurs when cargo ships pump water over the deck and
through loading tubes to wash away any refuse that has collected from
the loading and unloading process. Industry insiders say the practice is
necessary to protect the safety of the crew and the integrity of the cargo.


James Weakley is President of the Lake Carriers’ Association.


“I’m very confident that what we’re putting over the side are naturally
occurring substances… and we’ve been doing this practice for hundreds
of years and as yet we haven’t seen an environmental harm.”


Critics are concerned about toxins that might be carried in the coal, iron
ore, and slag jettisoned by the ships, and they’re concerned about the
habitat that might be buried under the refuse.


This year the U.S. Coast Guard is reviewing the 1993 interim policy that
allows cargo sweeping, but as of yet no scientific study has been
commissioned.


For the GLRC, I’m Charity Nebbe.

Related Links

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

New Mining Operation Worries Neighbors

  • Resistance to the proposed sulfide mine project is strong in Big Bay, Michigan. It's the largest town (population 500) near the area. (Photo by Chris McCarus)

A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:

Transcript

A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports.


The price of nickel has tripled in recent years. It’s needed for electronic produces such as computers. It’s used to produce cars. And nickel is even used in air pollution control equipment. If it’s approved, this would be North America’s only active nickel mine.


Kennecott Minerals Corporation says it’ll mean 120 jobs for local workers over a 10-year period. The state of Michigan has been lagging behind the rest of the nation in job recovery and in the northern reaches of the state good jobs are really hard to find.


The mine will cost 100 million dollars to set up. But the value of the nickel ore in the ground is somewhere between one and three billion dollars. So the company could make hundreds of millions in profit.


Scientists and activists say that this nickel mine could be even worse than the iron and copper mines of the past.


That’s because it would require mining through sulfide minerals. When they mix with water and oxygen, they can become sulfuric acid, just like battery acid. The industry calls the problem acid mine drainage. It can kill fish and wildlife and pollute water.


Michelle Halle is a lawyer for the National
Wildlife Federation and a local resident. She’s got one question.


“I’m always interested in the answer to the question about whether he believes that a mine can exist with 100% perfect track record.”


It’s a rhetorical question. She’s confident that the company won’t be able to meet the newer, stricter standards for getting a permit to mine.


“No human error, no design flaws, no natural disasters that are going to cause an impact… I don’t think that any company can say yes to that honestly.”


The mining company says there’s always some risk. John Cherry works for Kennecott Minerals Corporation. Cherry insists the company’s design is the best, and the safest. Although he says it’s impossible to guarantee against accidents at the mine.


“We can get in a crash on the way home today too. You design it with a safety factor built into your design. You have a very robust design. That’s your first step. You make your system as structurally competent as you can. Make it as bulletproof as you can.”


Cherry says the next steps are to install a monitoring system to detect the smallest problems. And if there are any problems, the mine will have a contingency plan with the right materials and properly trained people on hand.


State law requires the company to pay all of its accident insurance up front. They can’t just pay in installments. That way, the company will pay to clean up any mess, not the state or the community. Minnesota has a similar law. And In Wisconsin, People Against Mining got the state to establish a moratorium on sulfide mining


David Chambers used to work as a geologist for a mining company. And now he works for the Center for Science in Public Participation. He says, at the nickel mine planned in Michigan, groundwater contamination is possible and would be dangerous.


“Probably the most likely event is an accidental release from the mine. All mines have problems. It’s likely that somebody won’t turn a valve the right way or a big storm comes and there’s an overflow.”


Chambers says a mine collapse would be the most destructive. But, he says, even for the accidents that will not devastate the environment, the company and the community should plan, because they will happen.


(Sound of trucks)


On the road leading into the wilderness area where the mine would operate, local road crews are doing routine maintenance. Right now, most people who use the road are hikers, kayakers and fishermen. The pristine waters of Lake Superior and surrounding lakes and streams attract them here.


Kristy Mills is a store owner. She thinks a sulfide mine would only mean heavier traffic of trucks carrying away nickel ore. She says it wouldn’t bring in the tourist dollars the area needs.


“We don’t like to see that kind of growth. I think it’s a poor way of investing into our future. You know, we need to encourage tourism and visitation, not mining and hauling ore around in big trucks. It’s gonna be interesting.”


Many local residents and environmental activists feel the area should have learned lessons from the region’s past mining heritage. The precious ore is removed. People somewhere else get rich. And the legacy of pollution is all that remains when the mines are closed. So now, they’re hoping if it comes, this mine will be different.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Major Dock Corrosion Stumps Officials

  • The Duluth Seaway Port Authority's bulk cargo dock is typical of many in the port. Officials are troubled by corrosion appearing on the docks in the harbor - the steel is corroding much faster than normal. (Photo by Bob Kelleher)

Corrosion is eating away at the steel walls that hold one of the Great Lakes’ busiest harbors together. The corrosion is unlike anything known to be happening in any other Great Lakes port. But other port officials are being encouraged to take a closer look at their own underwater steel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports:

Transcript

Corrosion is eating away at the steel walls that hold
one of the Great Lakes’ busy harbors together. The
corrosion is unlike anything known to be happening in
any other Great Lakes port. But other port officials
are being encouraged to take a closer look at their own
underwater steel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Bob Kelleher reports:


Some kind of corrosion is eating away at the Duluth
Seaway port’s docks. The docks are those long
earth-filled metal rectangles where ships from around
the world tie up to load and unload. Those docks are
lined with sheets of steel, and the steel is rusting
away. Jim Sharrow is the Duluth
Seaway Port Authorities Facilities Manager.


“It’s corroding quickly – much faster than people expect
in fresh water. And our main concern is that we’ll lose
the integrity and the strength of the dock long before
expected, and have to do steel replacement at $1,500 or
more per lineal foot, much earlier than ever would have
been expected.”


Corrosion should be a slow process in Duluth’s cold
fresh water. But, Sharrow says, there’s evidence it’s
been happening remarkably quickly for about thirty years.


“What we seem to see here is corrosion that started in
the mid 1970s. We have steel that’s 100 years olds
that’s about as similarly corroded to steel that is 25
to 30 years old.”


It’s a big problem. There’s about thirteen miles of
steel walls lining docks in the harbor that serves
Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. There’s half
again as many feet of wooden docks, held together with
steel pins. There’s corrosion on the legs of highway
bridges and the giant
steel ore docks that ship millions of tons of taconite
– a type of iron shipped to steel mills in Gary,
Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio.


“We characterize this as a 100-million dollar problem in
the harbor. It’s a huge problem, and what is so odd
about this is that we only see it happening in the
navigational area of the Duluth-Superior Harbor.”


The harbor links the St Louis River with Lake Superior.
Go a few miles up the river and there’s little corrosion
. So it doesn’t seem like the problem’s there. But, back
in the harbor, at the current rate of corrosion, Sharrow
says, the steel will fail quickly.


“I figure that in about 10 years at the current rate,
we will have to start replacing steel.”


“Particularly marginal operators could decide rather
than repair their docks it would be better for them to
go out of business, and we’re hoping that that isn’t
the case here.”


While the cause is a mystery, there’s no shortage of
theories. It could have something to do with stray
electrical voltage; water acidity; or the kinds of
steel manufactured in recent years. Chad Scott
discovered the corrosion in the late 1990’s. He’s an
engineer and a diver. Scott suspects
a micro-biological connection. He says there might be
something growing in small round pits that form on the
steel.


“We cleaned up the water. That’s the main thing –
that’s one of the main changes that’s happened since
the 70s, is we’ve cleaned up our water. We’ve cleaned
up our harbor, which is a good thing. But, when we
cleaned things up we also induced more dissolved oxygen
and more sunlight can penetrate the water, which tends
to usually promote more growth – more marine
microbiology growth.”


A team of experts met in Duluth in September to share
ideas. They came from the U.S. Navy, The Army Corp of
Engineers, and Ohio State University. And they agreed
there’s something odd going on – possibly related to
microbes or water chemistry. They also recommend that
other Great Lakes ports take a closer look at their
underwater steel. Scott says they at least helped
narrow the focus.


“We have a large laundry list right now. We want to
narrow that down and try to decide what is the real
cause of this corrosion. And these experts, hopefully,
will be able to get us going on the right direction,
so we can start doing testing that will identify the
problem.”


With the experts recommendations in hand, port
officials are now planning a formal study. If they
do figure out the cause, then they’ve got to figure
out how to prevent it. They’re in a race with
something, and right now they don’t even know with
what.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.

Related Links