Maumee Bay and Maumee River channels leading to the Port of Toledo remain deep enough for ships to carry full loads, but conditions elsewhere in the Great Lakes system mean some ships calling here will have lightened loads, an industry representative told the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.
But port authority officials themselves said Toledo's port is vulnerable to a rush of sediment from a heavy rainstorm or if Lake Erie's water level drops.
"We're one bad Lake Erie storm short of the port closing," Seaport Director Warren McCrimmon said.
Glen Nekvasil, secretary of the Great Lakes Maritime Coalition, yesterday told port authority officials that shallow channels elsewhere cost the shipping industry thousands of tons per load, and are the result of inadequate dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps' budget is being constrained by a financial sleight-of-hand in Washington, he said.
"Every ton of cargo pays into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is supposed to pay for dredging," Mr. Nekvasil said.
"But the trust fund has a $3.5 billion surplus. They're using the surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund as a way of masking the federal deficit. When you pay a tax for a service, you kind of expect to get that service in return, don't you?"
While Lake Erie's water level on Feb. 9 was 11 inches above its long-term average, Mr. Nekvasil said, Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan are all 11 inches or more lower than average, which affects all cargoes shipped between Toledo and Upper Lakes ports.
James Hartung, the local port authority's president, said the Toledo port has maintained adequate water depth only because dredging has been concentrated on the center of the shipping channel, which leaves vessels vulnerable to running aground if strong winds or currents push them even slightly off course.
The Toledo harbor channel is the longest in the Great Lakes.
Mr. McCrimmon and Mr. Nekvasil gave similar testimony last week before the subcommittee on energy and water development of the House of Representatives' appropriations committee.
Mr. Nekvasil said he now is touring Great Lakes ports to rally support for a higher dredging budget.
In a Feb. 8 letter he co-signed with three other regional senators and sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate committees for appropriations and for environment and public works, U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) protested the Great Lakes' channel dredging budget in comparison with money spent on Mississippi and Missouri river channels.
"The Great Lakes are a national treasure and central to America's shipping infrastructure," the letter said. "Our country cannot afford to neglect the maintenance of the harbors along the nation's fourth coast."
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) is "mindful of the lake carriers' and port operators' concerns about dredging shortfalls," agreed Steve Katich, a spokesman for the congressman.
"It is a Great Lakes problem, and one that many Great Lakes legislators have been looking at," he said.
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