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U.S. Seaway Administrator Terry Johnson (left) poses with other industry leaders as the first freighter of the season enters the St. Lambert lock.
U.S. Seaway Administrator Terry Johnson (left) poses with other industry leaders as the first freighter of the season enters the St. Lambert lock.

Seaway burnishes "green" profile

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Last week, the first freighter of the year rumbled up the St. Lawrence River. That marked the 53rd season of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a man-made channel linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

The Seaway's billion dollars of commerce is mostly an economic conversation between Canada's southern coast, America's Midwest, and the far-flung ports of the world.

But it's caused vast environmental damage in the North Country and across the Great Lakes, largely via invasive species.

David Sommerstein went to the Seaway's opening ceremony last week in Montreal. He sends this report on the Seaway's delicate balance between the economy and the environment.

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Avonborg captain Gert Mol signs the "golden book" before a media scrum

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[sound up at lock.  Cameras clicking]

That’s it.  Squeeze in tighter.  Yeah, good.

Cameras click at Montreal’s St. Lambert lock on the St. Lawrence River.  Photographers jostle as four men in suits pose.  Behind them, the Dutch-flagged “Avonborg” rumbles slowly in and ties up.

One of the men, Terry Johnson, turns and notices the ship’s carrying dozens of giant wind turbine blades.  He’s psyched – it could have been iron ore or road salt.

Wind turbines have been increasingly coming in and it’s nice to be able to see something that is visual.  This is good.

Johnson is the U.S. chief of the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

The windmill parts bound for Indiana aren’t just a good photo opp.  They’re the perfect image the Seaway wants to project these days – that it’s the greenest, cheapest way to transport goods.  Shipping is far more fuel efficient than trucking.

Ross Fletcher of BBC Chartering contracted this ship.

Those 75 blades represent 75 truckloads that aren’t going to travel between Montreal and the U.S. Midwest, so we’re taking 75 truckloads off the highways.

The Seaway’s been trying to reinvent itself since it was built in the 1950s.  It was billed as an engineering marvel and a vast new economic engine, like in this 1960 documentary.

DOC AUDIO: When the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the doors for deep draft shipping, a new era in international commerce began.

But international trade leapfrogged the Seaway to even bigger and deeper draft ships, and to using containers that fit on trucks and trains for fast delivery.

The Seaway was left to move bulk cargo.  Grain and iron ore to Europe, Africa, and Latin America.  Steel and other raw materials into the Midwest.

Rolled steel, coiled steel, and other types of steel products used by manufacturers in the Great Lakes basin.

Steven Olinek directs the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority.  Citing a recent Michigan Sea Grant study on the economic impact of the Great Lakes, Olinek say the Seaway and the industries it supports are irreplaceable.

I don’t think this economy could withstand losing a million and a half jobs or 62 billion dollars in wages and the benefits those provide.

Here in the North Country, the Seaway’s economic impact isn’t worth ignoring.  More than a hundred people work at the locks and headquarters in Massena, a handful more at the port in Ogdensburg.

Wade Davis directs the Ogdensburg bridge and Port Authority.  He says road salt shipments save local highway departments money, and a growing trade in feed, fertilizer, and other inputs for area farms stir the economy.

We’re very good at what we do at handling bulk commodity handling, and we’re able to make a difference and lower the costs for local farms, and that’s a good feeling.

But over the Seaway’s history, those economic benefits have come at great cost to the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.  And as the Seaway looks to put its “green” face forward, environmental groups are saying don’t believe the hype.

Those of us in the environmental community and those of us living oalong the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes would question a lot of those quote unquote “green” claims.

Jennifer Caddick directs Save the River based in Clayton.  She says you can’t take away the fact that the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway flooded wetlands, caused oil spills, and introduced most of the Great Lakes’ 186 invasive species – stowaways in the foreign freighters’ ballast.  Critters like the zebra mussel and the round goby have cost the Great Lakes economy billions of dollars.  Caddick says those are debits any accounting must include.

So when you add up the benefits and subtract those costs, we find out that shipping really isn’t as big of a driver as the industry would like us to believe.

Caddick says even as the Seaway and its shippers acknowledge the threat of more invasive species, she believes they’re dragging their feet on tough new rules to force all ships to be equipped with high tech machines that clean ballast water.

We know that the shipping industry is hitting the halls of Washington and Albany and Ottawa fighting it tooth and nail from a legislative perspective and also in the courts.

Back at the lock in Montreal, U.S. Seaway Administrator Terry Johnson bristles at that talk.  He says several years ago, the Seaway instituted the world’s most stringent ballast water inspection system.

Every tank of every ship gets inspected, and we’re going on to our fifth year now with no new invasives coming in to the Lakes via waterborne commerce, so we think we’re doing our part to help protect the Lakes.  That’s not to say we’re against ballast water treatment systems.

Johnson says the U.S. Coast Guard is preparing to issue new rules for ballast water treatment equipment this summer.  Right now, there’s a patchwork of state regulations that drive shippers crazy, with New York’s being the most stringent.

[french at press conference]

Inside a building by the lock, Seaway officials gather for a press conference.  The Danish captain of the Avonborg signs a golden log book, an annual tradition.

The Seaway is predicting a 7% increase in business this year.  That’s coming off a couple brutal years due to the recession.

Terry Johnson says containers – those cubes of international trade – might actually make it into the Seaway for the first time.

So this really could be, in my judgement, a really breakout year.  I think we’re going to see new business nobody ever thought we were going to get.

Johnson and his Canadian counterpart announced one of the biggest shippers is investing in a new, cleaner fleet.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is making the case it is still relevant…and that it is green.  So for the Seaway, those wind turbines on that first freighter of the season were right on message.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Montreal.

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