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U.S. Seaway Administrator Betty Sutton, at Seaway Administration in Massena Tuesday. Photo: David Sommerstein.
U.S. Seaway Administrator Betty Sutton, at Seaway Administration in Massena Tuesday. Photo: David Sommerstein.

New Seaway chief seeks economic, green balance

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Shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway generates billions of dollars for the Great Lakes economy in the U.S. and Canada. But it also opened the door to damage from invasive species and forever changed the shape and ecology of the St. Lawrence River itself.

The new U.S. chief of the St. Lawrence Seaway is making her first visit to Massena this week. Betty Sutton is touring the Seaway's two locks on the St. Lawrence River, the vessel traffic control room, and meeting with many of the Seaway's 135 employees in Massena.

Betty Sutton's very first appointment in Massena was a sit-down with David Sommerstein.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story (and the audio version) refer to the Seaway Administration position as a seven year term.

That is no longer the case, as Nancy Alcalde, SLSDC spokeswoman, points out. In 2002, The Appointment and Efficiency Streamlining Act of 2011, P.L. 112-166, made this position an appointment "at the pleasure of the President". It is also no longer subject to U.S. Senate confirmation.

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Administrator Betty Sutton first strode through the doors of the Seaway Administration building at 9:41 Tuesday morning.

For scheduling reasons, even before Sutton got to meet the staff, she sat down with me in a conference room lined with fancy books for her first North Country interview.

I am Betty Sutton, and I am happy to say that I am the new Administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. I am very honored to have this opportunity and to oversee this appointment from President Obama, and I’m looking forward to getting started.

Sutton’s in her first week on the job as Administrator. She comes from the Akron, Ohio area, which she represented in Congress as a Democrat from 2007 to 2012. She lost re-election to an incumbent Republican after the district was redrawn. The district included a sliver of Lake Erie waterfront, Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland. So I asked her what it’s like there.

Well, I think it's probably a lot like life here. The lake and the whole system plays a lot of roles in people's lives. Certainly there's an economic component—not just on the movement of goods—but also with respect to tourism and fishing, and frankly, as a water resource in general. So it's very important to people that we manage it well.

And by “well,” Sutton says she believes in finding a balance - between the 227,000 jobs and 33 billion dollars in revenue that Seaway shipping generates in the Great Lakes on both sides of the border, and protecting the fish, wildlife, plants, and water quality of the largest surface fresh water system in the world.

I am a person who rejects the kind of thinking that we sometimes hear—that it's either the environment or jobs, jobs or the environment. I'm a person who belives it's really important that we protect the great assets that we have. As a member of congress, I was the person who managed the floor debate on the Great Lakes Compact [that controlled how water can be used in the Great Lakes], an amazing agreement.

I think it's important... I reject "You're either for the commercial aspects of the Seaway, or you're for the environment."

One of the things that I did when I was in Congress and our auto industry was on the brink, I introduced and passed the "Cash for Clunkers" program, which not only was aimed at stimulating jobs in the auto industry, but also had an environmental integrity component, which was important, so that when people were trading in cars and getting an incentive to do so, they only got it when they acheived a certain environmental standard in the car that they were purchasing under the program.

I think that that's an example of how we can do a lot. The Seaway's mandate is safe, reliable, secure movement of commercial vessels and marine transportation, but we also have a lot of stakeholders that are involved. Just like with "Cash for Clunkers," where you're able to build consensus toward an end, and acheive good in more than one direction at a time, I think the Seaway is a perfect example of where that can really be done.

As many people in the North Country will say, the Seaway was outdated before it opened in 1959. Most of the world’s commercial fleet can’t squeeze into the Seaway’s locks and channels. Sutton’s predecessor, Terry Johnson, made an important policy departure when he said the Seaway would abandon studies to try to dredge and deepen those channels to accommodate larger ships. So-called “expansion” would significantly alter the St. Lawrence River in the North Country, where islands and riverbed would have to be blasted away.

Sutton says with the Seaway still operating well below capacity, she’s “not focused” on expansion.

There is room, there is capacity within the system as it exists today, and we're focused at this point—at least in my early, intial look at this, (I'm taking everything in)—but focused on adding to the capacity as it already exists.

Another major environmental issue in the North Country and across the Great Lakes is invasive species. Organisms like zebra mussels hitchhiking in the ballast of foreign freighters have cost the region billions of dollars.

But since requiring ships to clean their ballast in the ocean, the Seaway has made great strides. Betty Sutton says the Seaway has to always remain alert for new invasive species.

Coming from Ohio, it has been a real issue that impacts our lives. This has been an issue that I personally have been very well aware of, and certainly concerned about as a person who had the privilege to serve the people there. And it's good news that the program that has been underway has improved things on this front—the news that since 2006 we don't have any confirmed new invasive species—but we have to be ever vigilant.

Some groups in New York have called for even stricter rules. Would you support more stringent technology on ships for reducing the risk?

I am always going to have an open mind on finding ways to reduce risk.

Sutton’s most immediate challenge will be finding ways to boost traffic that has slumped since the recession. Last year saw a boost, but the first half of this year has seen a 12 percent decrease in tonnage.

Sutton says she’s hopeful. The U.S. and Canada have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a ten-year program to renew the existing locks, channels, and other infrastructure. And private shippers are investing in new fleets.

Ships that are more environmentally sound, and technology that is going to help us improve the competitiveness of this mode of transportation, and all of those signs are indicators that the Seaway is not just part of the past, but is a big part of our future.

Betty Sutton is the new U.S. Administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. She’s making her first visit to the North Country since taking office.

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