CLEVELAND - Security against terrorism has been greatly enhanced in the Great Lakes region by the private sector s willingness to help the U.S. and Canadian governments protect the region s shipping channel, a top-level Department of Homeland Security official said here yesterday.
Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, Jr., special assistant to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, said he is impressed by the public-private partnerships that have been forged among the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces.
The feat should not be underrated because 85 percent of the region s “critical infrastructure” - from food to banking to energy - is owned by the private sector, he said.
“We ve got an enemy that will stop at nothing to ruin the American way of life,” Mr. Martinez-Fonts said. He was the keynote speaker at the Coast Guard s annual Marine Community Day conference at the Sheraton City Centre, in which 300 people heard a gamut of issues that included shipping, global economic trade, and environmental concerns.
As special assistant for the private sector, Mr. Martinez-Fonts is Mr. Ridge s chief liaison with private industry. He described himself as “the eyes and ears for Secretary Ridge.” Mr. Ridge is a former Pennsylvania governor who grew up in Erie, Pa., along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Mr. Martinez-Fonts said he has a staff of 15 people to communicate with 25 million U.S. businesses. Consequently, the Department of Homeland Security works a lot with trade associations to communicate with industry.
The department sets policies to guide security efforts but leaves many of the details in the hands of local and regional groups most familiar with the intricacies of their specific industries, he said.
The enormous task of enhancing security in the Great Lakes region has been made easier by friendly relations with Canada, often illustrated by the mutually cooperative relationship the private shipping industries in both countries have had, he said.
The region s security depends largely upon its ability to keep ships moving, engage in trade, and keep its economy healthy. Thus, he said he gives businesses the following as standard advice: “Security is an investment. It is not a cost.”
The theme of this year s conference was sustaining the Great Lakes, from water quality to economic diversity.
That includes the shipping channel itself. The U.S. and Canada are in the process of assessing the St. Lawrence Seaway and the channel s viability from Montreal to Duluth, Minn. A report assessing the system s current usage potential over the next 50 years is due out by October, 2005, Wayne Schloop, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official from Detroit assigned to the project, said.
Port authorities in Toledo and other parts of the Great Lakes have warned officials for years that the region will have difficulty competing in the emerging global marketplace later this century if the channel is not deepened and widened to accommodate large ships that haul containerized goods. Ships that size typically do not enter the Great Lakes because the water is too shallow.
Few people argue with the need to improve aging locks and other existing structures. But the idea of deepening and widening the shipping channel has drawn the wrath of environmentalists who fear that digging up tons of additional sediment could undo progress made to clean up the water since the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed in 1972.
“It s certainly a complex system, and what we re taking on is a complex job,” Mr. Schloop said. He said proposals to deepen and widen the system are not part of the upcoming assessment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though, has become involved in the process to help monitor potential ecological effects, he said.
“There s no denying our vessels could handle more cargo. The question is whether [deepening and widening the channel] is economically feasible,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, a Cleveland group that represents U.S.-flagged ships in the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes are being studied for more than just shipping and recreational boating. There has been heightened interest in more cruises as well as passenger ferries.
One ferry proposal that is a decade old would involve shuttling casino-goers between Toledo and Windsor, Ont., on a hover-type craft. The proposal is still viable, David Knight, of the Great Lakes Commission, said.
It is one of at least five known projects being considered, four of which would move ferry passengers across one of the lakes between the U.S. and Canada mainland. One would shuttle people across southern Lake Michigan, between Benton Harbor, Mich., and Chicago, he said.
The Great Lakes are an important part of the region s psyche as well as its economy, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell said.
In her city, the Lake Erie waterfront has become an aesthetic pleasure. Cleveland wants to sustain that, rather than revert to its image as the place where the nearby Cuyahoga River was so filthy that it burned in 1969, she said.
“There are times we all just have to walk to the water s edge and enjoy the day,” Ms. Campbell said.