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The crew of Coast Guard Cutter <em>Neah Bay</em>, homeported in Cleveland, works to keep the <em>CSL Laurentien</em> moving during an escort in eastern Lake Erie March 27, 2014. Photo: courtesy USCG
The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay, homeported in Cleveland, works to keep the CSL Laurentien moving during an escort in eastern Lake Erie March 27, 2014. Photo: courtesy USCG

Relentless winter's ice delays St. Lawrence River shipping

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Three U.S. Coast Guard cutter vessels are to help with annual ice-breaking operations in Thunder Bay's harbour on Lake Superior--the far end of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Canadian Coast Guard crews and their icebreakers are leading the effort after the harsh winter produced what are being called "unusually heavy and persistent" ice conditions.

The annual opening of the Seaway is one of the signs of spring in the North Country. But as with pretty much everything this year, winter is still having its way with the calendar.

The Seaway is holding its opening ceremony to welcome commercial ship traffic between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean this morning near Buffalo. But it's had to delay the opening of the St. Lawrence River part of the Seaway for three days until Monday due to ice.

David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley to discuss the annual debate over the Seaway's opening date.

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Martha Foley: It has been a brutal winter. The ice is very thick in many places. This year had the most ice cover on the Great Lakes in years. Why doesn’t the St. Lawrence Seaway just wait until the ice goes out?

David Sommerstein: This is the Seaway’s 56th opening day since the locks and channels were carved out of the St. Lawrence River and other parts of the Great Lakes. Traditionally the date is around March 25. And the yearly determination of that date is always a tug-of-war between the needs of ship owners trying to move cargo and Mother Nature.

For example, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported yesterday there are grain elevators and farm bins stuffed with wheat in the Canadian Midwest. Because the winter’s been so bad there, they haven’t even been able to ship that grain out by rail. And the ice on Lake Superior is a foot thicker than usual.

So these farmers and shippers are chomping at the bit to get all that grain out of there and across the Atlantic Ocean.

And that starts with opening the Seaway. So Friday at 11 am, Seaway officials will hold the traditional “top hat” ceremony at the Welland Canal, which links Lakes Erie and Ontario, where they’ve been able to clear the ice. The captain of the first freighter—in this case, the Algoma Equinox, which also happens to be a brand new, high tech ship they’re showing off—officially signs a register. There are lots of speeches, and the shipping season gets underway.

MF: So that ship can start moving through Lake Erie and Lake Ontario today. But the St. Lawrence River section of the Seaway doesn’t open until Monday. What are ice conditions like on the St. Lawrence?

DS: Well, there is above average ice cover. Hence the delay. But Lee Wilbanks, who directs Save The River, an environmental group based in Clayton, says it very much depends on where you are.

"There’s open water in several places where you get swift current or a shallower channel and then places like right outside our office, which is [in] Clayton looking across to Grindstone Island, there’s pretty decent ice cover still. And, of course, the bays and the places where the tributaries empty into, you still have pretty decent ice coverage."

MF: Now Save the River is concerned every year about shipping when there’s ice on the river. They say the wake from a freighter can jostle the ice and scour sensitive habitat. What do they think about this delayed opening?

DS: They say it’s still not delayed enough. This debate has become somewhat of a rite of spring unto itself. Save the River and other green groups tell the Seaway it’s letting freighters on the river too quickly, that the ice can scour fish spawning areas or other sensitive habitat. Wilbanks says another concern is if there were an oil or chemical spill, these are hostile icy conditions. He says some of the boat launches that emergency responders would use are still iced in.

"So the idea of getting either boom out to contain a spill of [some] type of product or bunker fuel, or just to get an emergency crew."

The Seaway says it considers all these factors when it determines the opening date. And the Seaway has conducted on-the-water spill response drills, but not during these kinds of icy conditions.

On the shippers’ side right now is the weather. It’s supposed to get into the upper 30s and 40s this weekend, and into the 50s on Monday.

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