Hailed as one of North America's greatest engineering feats, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway has drawn both praise and scorn in commemoration of its 50th anniversary this month.
Praise for the obvious: It connects America's heartland and some of Canada's most populous cities to the rest of the world while making it possible for regional goods to be transported more efficiently among the eight states and two provinces. Both have been a plus for North America's economy, though oceangoing vessels - even in today's era of global trade - make up only 10 percent of the ship traffic.
Scorn for the not-so obvious: It has opened a Pandora's box of costly ecological problems, some of which are summarized in a new book published by Michigan State University Press titled Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway.
In it, author Jeff Alexander, a longtime Great Lakes newspaper writer, tells how officials were determined to build the $1 billion project during former President
Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration at almost any cost and without comprehending the risks.
The seaway is blamed for opening the door to a slew of destructive species from other parts of the world that have upset the food balance for fish that anchor the region's multibillion-dollar tourism and recreation industries. The National Wildlife Federation claims that invasive species cause at least $200 million of damage a year, with many of the exotics coming in the ballast water of ships.
In the case of zebra mussels, Great Lakes industries have spent billions since 1986 trying to keep their water intakes and other structures clear. But rather than being expelled, the exotic mussel moved landward and anchored itself in almost all of the continent's major water bodies.
The seaway's downside prompted Jennifer Caddick, executive director of an environmental group in upstate New York called Save the River, to begin a news conference last week by saying she "wonders what the celebration's about."
"We need to restore this magnificent resource, not let the seaway continue to degrade it," she said.
But for as much controversy as the seaway has generated in its first 50 years, there are signs it could emerge with more ship traffic in its next 50:
•Economists predict more global trade this century.
•Big money is going into modernizing the seaway's locks and ports. Of the $35 million in federal stimulus funds headed Toledo's way, nearly half will be used to fund more improvements at the Toledo Shipyard.
•Cargo can be moved more efficiently - and with fewer greenhouse gases - by ship than rail or ground.
Last week, a study group composed of U.S. and Canadian seaway officials, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and Transport Canada, celebrated a March report that cited a number of improvements in ballast inspections during 2008.
Officials from the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., who oversee the seaway's U.S. operations, told The Blade that the seaway's two largest international carriers, FedNav, Ltd., and Canfornav, Ltd., have spent millions of dollars researching new ballast water treatment technologies.
"As our economy diversifies, so too will the traffic on the seaway," the corporation said.
The shipping industry has said it doesn't want potential savings in greenhouse gases to be overlooked. The seaway is responsible for moving an average 50 million tons of freight annually.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that came out earlier this year said the Great Lakes navigation system "plays a key role in preserving our nation's fuel."
It claimed that a ton of cargo can be moved 607 miles on a gallon of fuel, compared to 202 miles by rail and 59 miles by road.
Glen G. Nekvasil, vice president of communications for the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers' Association, which represents ships moving cargo exclusively within the Great Lakes region, has said that report was the first to put a value on Great Lakes shipping. It claimed the region gets a $3.6 billion annual benefit from it.
But the seaway's future hasn't been limited to the tension over industrial growth and environmental protection.
Expanding the seaway would cost billions of dollars and take years. Such a project would be complicated by the Detroit River's thick bedrock, plus a consensus among scientists that climate change could make lake levels recede three to five feet this century unless the United States and other world leaders get more aggressive about reducing greenhouse gases.
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