Lock the lakes, groups say
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Coz   
Thursday, 24 May 2007 13:10

A once-radical suggestion hit the mainstream Wednesday when a coalition of 90 environmental groups said it is time to lock saltwater vessels out of the Great Lakes until Congress requires the ships to sterilize their contaminated ballast water.

The proposal is tangled with legal and political questions, including whether the United States could make a unilateral management decision for the St. Lawrence Seaway, which it jointly owns and operates with Canada.

But there is some serious ballast behind the push. Coalition members include the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and Ducks Unlimited.

Coalition spokesman Jeff Skelding acknowledged during a teleconference Wednesday that the conservation community universally dismissed the idea as outlandish when it was broached a few years ago. The topic was explored in depth in 2004 and 2005 in two Journal Sentinel series on the ecological and economic issues plaguing the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

But after conservationists took a hard look at the costs and benefits of the current situation, Skelding said, a moratorium on overseas ships in the Great Lakes actually makes a lot of sense.

Money is a big reason.

Commercial navigation on the Great Lakes generates about $3.4 billion in business revenue a year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But often overlooked in that figure is the fact that most of that traffic is confined to the Great Lakes-specific fleet, called lakers. These ships do not pose a threat of introducing overseas species to the Great Lakes because they never leave the lakes.

The problem is oceangoing vessels, commonly called salties.

But salties account for less than 7% of the cargo moved on the Great Lakes and Seaway, according to the Corps of Engineers.

The ships typically arrive with loads of foreign steel and depart with grain. It is a relatively small amount of both, largely because of the Seaway's outdated, undersized locks and the fact that they shut down each winter because of ice.

One widely cited estimate of the annual transportation savings associated with overseas traffic in the Great Lakes is $55 million.

An estimate of the price to date just for dealing with zebra and quagga mussels since they were first discovered in North America: $2 billion.

"Advocating for a shipping moratorium may seem extreme to some," said Skelding, who represents the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

"To those I say: What is more extreme? Offering a solution to protect a resource that millions of people depend on for their jobs, drinking water, public health and quality of life? Or standing by complacently as wave after wave of new invaders enter the lakes, fouling drinking water, killing off fish, disrupting small businesses and costing citizens billions of dollars in damage and control the costs?"

This is ridiculous'

Government ecologist Gary Fahnenstiel stuck his neck out in December 2004 when he called for kicking oceangoing vessels off the Great Lakes until the shipping industry could figure out how to stop spewing its biological pollution into the world's largest freshwater system.

"I'll be among the first scientists to say, 'Let's close the Welland Canal,' " Fahnenstiel, an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a Journal Sentinel story. "Let's start there. This is ridiculous."

Since then, the normally outspoken Fahnenstiel hasn't said a word on the highly contentious issue, which surfaced again last month when a single conservation group, the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes United, stepped forward with a similar proposal.

Shipping industry advocates bristled.

"It's a nice political statement, but it's completely impractical and impossible," U.S. Seaway boss Terry Johnson said in April.

Aside from the international political considerations, Johnson said, it just doesn't make economic sense to close the Seaway to oceangoing vessels.

"There are sets of assets here - the locks and the ships that ply the locks - that have billions of dollars' worth of investment in them, and the notion of a government and private sector stepping away from billions of dollars of investments is a non-starter," Johnson said.

Conservationists agree that billions of dollars are at stake in overseas shipping, but they say those dollars are tallying up on the wrong side of the ledger.

There are now more than 180 non-native species in the Great Lakes, and a new one is discovered, on average, about every six months. About 70% of the invasions since the Seaway opened in 1959 are blamed on ballast water discharges.

Some slip quietly into the ecosystem, some hit like Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. Zebra and quagga mussels have rewired the way energy flows through the whole system, ravaging beaches with noxious algae and putting in jeopardy prized native species such as perch and whitefish. The recently discovered VHS virus, which many suspect was carried into the region by freighter, threatens to wipe out entire fish populations.

Industry wants ballast law

The shipping industry acknowledges the problem and says it is eager to see Congress pass a national ballast water law, but such legislation has been stalled for four years. The industry says it doesn't make sense to install ballast treatment systems on its own until a national law is passed that defines what standards must be met to certify ballast water as "clean."

The conservation groups agreed Wednesday that a federal law requiring ballast treatment systems on overseas ships is the best way to go. But absent that, they said, a moratorium on salties is needed to protect what's left of the lakes' ecological integrity.

The concept has drawn attention from federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who represents the port city of Duluth, said last month that the only real solution is a federal ballast discharge law, but he said it was "terrific" that people had begun to force the issue by proposing a moratorium. U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) agreed with Oberstar that federal legislation was the best answer, but he said a moratorium "certainly is a serious proposal."

In December 2005, the Journal Sentinel published a series of reports detailing the costs and benefits of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the paper editorialized that lawmakers should "give serious consideration to blocking" salties.

The U.S. and Canadian Seaway managers called it crazy talk.

"The Seaway has acted as a vital economic gateway to the Great Lakes region for almost 50 years, moving more than 2 billion tons of goods since it first opened. Government, industry and environmentalists are working together to solve the ballast water challenge and are making real progress," former U.S. Seaway Administrator Albert Jacquez wrote in a letter with Canadian Seaway boss Richard Corfe.

"We may not agree on every point, but everyone, except for the Journal Sentinel, agrees that closing the door on the Seaway isn't an answer."

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