'Water highway' sparks fears among environmentalists
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Sunday, 13 August 2006 04:49

The agency that operates the St. Lawrence Seaway hopes to reverse a 25-year decline in Great Lakes shipping by bringing more ocean freighters, so-called container ships, into the lakes.The project, known as HWY H2O, could double the volume of freight currently shipped on the Great Lakes. 

Environmentalists said allowing more ocean freighters into the St. Lawrence River could deliver more exotic species to the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels and other exotic species imported to the lakes over the past 40 years in freighter ballast water have hurt some fish populations, spawned toxic algae blooms and dramatically altered parts of the lakes' ecosystems.

 "To increase shipping in the Great Lakes with ocean freighters, which are the No. 1 vector for invasive species, borders on irresponsible," said Jordan Lubetkin, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor.There currently are 182 invasive species in the lakes. Two-thirds of the exotic species imported to the Great Lakes since 1959, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the lakes to ocean freighters, have come from the ballast water of ocean freighters, according to a recent scientific study.Environmentalists said U.S. and Canadian officials who control shipping in the St. Lawrence Seaway must stop the flow of exotic species entering in ocean freighters' ballast water before allowing more foreign ships into the lakes.

Ballast water

The Seaway is a 2,300-mile network of rivers, locks and lakes that allow ocean freighters to reach ports on all five Great Lakes.

Officials at the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. in Montreal said HWY H2O project will allow shipping companies to move more freight across the Great Lakes without increasing the risk of introducing more exotic species from Europe or Asia.

Because most ocean-going container ships are too large to pass through locks on the St. Lawrence River, the massive freighters unload their cargo onto smaller "feeder ships" at ports on Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Newark, N.J.

The feeder ships then deliver the containers to ports throughout the Great Lakes, said Aldert van Nieuwkoop, director of market development for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

"The feeder vessels will not be carrying ballast water from overseas destinations, but will be plying routes within the waters of our own national boundaries," van Nieuwkoop said.

Critics of HWY H2O said the ocean freighters could unknowingly discard exotic species while docked in Montreal, Halifax or Newark. A feeder ship could then pick up those exotics and transport the foreign organisms to Great Lakes ports.

"The priorities of U.S. and Canadian Seaway managers are off," said Jennifer Nalbone, campaign director for the Buffalo, N.Y., group Great Lakes United. "The most pressing current debate is how to prevent new invasions from ocean-going vessels, and even whether ocean-going vessels belong on the Great Lakes."

Van Nieuwkoop said ballast water management standards within the Seaway/Great Lakes are "among the most stringent in the world."

Since 1993, ocean freighters have been required to exchange ballast water offshore before entering the Great Lakes. But the current regulations have not stopped the flow of exotic species into the lakes, according to several scientific studies.

The muddy slop that remains when freighters empty ballast tanks often contains millions of organisms that can survive in the Great Lakes, including invertebrates and potentially deadly pathogens, according to a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A new exotic species is discovered in the Great Lakes every 28 weeks, said Anthony Ricciardi, an exotic species expert at McGill University in Montreal.

Pros and cons

Some scientists and environmentalists have said banning ocean freighters from the Great Lakes is the only sure way to prevent new exotic species from being dumped in the lakes.

A recent Grand Valley State University said banning ocean freighters from the lakes would increase the annual cost to move goods around the region by $55 million, or 6 percent. By contrast, zebra mussels and other exotic species carried into the lakes in freighter ballast water cause damages costing upward of $500 million annually, according to the GVSU study.

Van Nieuwkoop said shipping is a more economic and environmentally friendly way to move cargo across the Great Lakes region, especially in light of soaring fuel costs and concerns about global warming. He said freighters can transport 1 ton of cargo eight times farther per gallon of gas than trucks can, and 21/2 times further than trains.

Transporting cargo containers by ship also reduces truck traffic in larger port communities, where traffic jams can slow the movement of freight, van Nieuwkoop said.

"Many coastal ports are becoming land-locked as road and rail arteries are increasingly congested due to the steep rise in trade volumes," van Nieuwkoop said. "This challenge is evident on both coasts, and is most apparent on the West Coast, bringing about the diversion of Asian vessels to East Coast ports via the Suez Canal."

The HWY H2O project began with little fanfare because the project did not require government approval before proceeding. New permits were not needed because the smaller container ships that move cargo across the Great Lakes can navigate existing locks in the St. Lawrence and St. Mary's rivers.

When the shipping locks and canals in Montreal that made the St. Lawrence a reality opened in 1959, supporters predicted the Seaway would make the Great Lakes region a force in international shipping.

The St. Lawrence Seaway/Great Lakes shipping system is the backbone of a $3 billion regional shipping economy that supports more than 150,000 jobs in the U.S., according to Seaway officials.

But the volume of cargo shipped through the St. Lawrence River has declined steadily in recent years, from 80 million tons in 1980 to about 43 million tons last year, according to Seaway data.

HWY H2O was launched in 2003 in a bid to reverse that trend. Since then, officials said they have seen the volume of freight transported on the St. Lawrence Seaway increase by 500,000 tons.

The smaller container vessels, so-called "feeder ships," have transported cargo through the St. Lawrence Seaway and as far West as Toledo, Seaway officials said. Several Great Lakes ports, including Detroit, Chicago, Burns Harbor, Ind., and Duluth, Minn., are participating in HWY H2O and might soon see container ships, officials said.

Seaway officials hope HWY H2O brings another 36 million tons of freight annually into the Great Lakes via container ships.

Another concern

Exotic species are not the only concern associated with bringing container ships into the Great Lakes.

Terrorism experts and officials at the London-based International Maritime Organization have warned that the 200 million cargo containers transported around the world each year by freighters are a prime target for terrorists.

Large, ocean-going container ships can carry up to 10,000 containers. The average size of a container is 8 feet wide, 81/2 feet high and range in size from 20 to 53 feet deep.

Experts fear terrorists might plant a crude nuclear device, called a "dirty bomb," in a cargo container and detonate the device in a major port city.

"The fact that a container can be loaded and sealed just about anywhere ... and then introduced into a transport system that contains millions of identical or near identical units, makes container security such a massive challenge," said Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, in a 2005 speech.

U.S. and Canadian officials increased inspections of foreign-flagged ships entering the Great Lakes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Seaway officials. Despite the added security measures, the threat of a terrorist attack on a freighter in the Great Lakes "is real," according to the Seaway's Web site.

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