Long-term growth strategy for Seaway system could include longer shipping season

A $3.8 billion strategy to double maritime trade on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system over the next 10 years includes a proposal to lengthen the shipping season, a situation Save the River will monitor closely.

The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers approved its first-ever regional maritime transportation strategy in June, an effort to improve efficiencies in the system, enhance its global competitiveness and create jobs.

Headed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, the strategy is designed to help increase the system’s commerce, which already contributes more than $30 billion total to the United States and Canadian economies and accounts for more than 220,000 jobs.

Key to the strategy would be construction of a second lock similar to the existing Poe Lock at the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which also includes the 73-year-old MacArthur Lock.

According to the strategy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has found that an unplanned, extended closure of the Soo Locks would, among other things, cut off most the country’s iron ore supply, devastating the steel industry, as “nearly 100 percent of North America appliances, automobile, construction equipment, farm equipment, mining equipment and railcar production would shut down,” resulting in “crippling” unemployment and economic recession.

The Soo Locks separate Lake Superior and Lake Huron and allow ships access to the lower Great Lakes from Lake Superior. Last summer, MacArthur Lock experienced mechanical problems and was taken out of service for about three weeks, leading to bottlenecks and shipping delays at Poe Lock, which was built in 1968. Michigan legislators have long called for upgrades or replacement of the locks. The conference’s strategy recommends that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “immediately accelerate” its cost-benefit study on the construction of a second “Poe Class” lock.

The strategy also recommends that the asset renewal program for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., which operates Eisenhower and Snell locks at Massena, be “fully funded.”

But the strategy contains a section titled “Season Optimization” which suggests ways the shipping season could be extended, a concern for Save the River, which was formed in Clayton in 1978 in part to oppose winter navigation on the St. Lawrence River. The organization’s executive director, D. Lee Willbanks, along with Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, had sent a letter outlining concerns about the strategy in February, when it was still in draft form.

The environmental groups contend that ice-breaking efforts needed to accommodate a longer shipping season would have negative consequences for the waterway’s ecosystem, including sport and commercial fisheries. Shoreline erosion and other damage from ice-breaking “can have significant impacts on ecologically sensitive and economically valuable areas,” the groups wrote.

Also, the group states that many areas in the Great Lakes are facing increased periods of high evaporation during ice-free winter months, a situation that could be exacerbated by intentional ice-breaking. The increased evaporation could contribute to lower water levels on the system, which may prompt the need for cargo reductions. The group also questions the amount of fuel needed to break up ice, noting that it could be incompatible with the conference’s goal of increasing fuel efficiency along the system.

Mr. Willbanks said in an email Tuesday that, after the groups submitted their concerns to the conference, they received “verbal assurance” that the focus of the extended season discussion is the inter-lake shipping between the United States and Canada, not on the St. Lawrence River. He said given the economic, environmental and permitting obstacles that the groups know stand in the way of any effort to expand the shipping season on the river, “those assurances ring true.”

“But, and this will always be true, Save the River and the River community have faced this threat in the past,” Mr. Willbanks said. “We remain vigilant to any renewed efforts for destructive ice-breaking for winter shipping and we stand ready to block it again,”

The strategy also includes, among other things, proposals for dredging certain channels and harbors to address safety issues and to allow ships to carry heavier cargo loads. It also includes a recommendation to ease the customs clearance process for passengers on cruise ships that visit ports on both sides of the international border, as existing Customs protocols can inconvenience or delay a cruise ship, inhibiting growth in the cruise ship industry.

By Brian Kelly, Watertown Daily Times