By: David Higby, Environmental Advocates of New York
Governmental hearings on the Great Lakes often range from argumentative and discouraging to nebulous and boring, rarely reflecting the passion and focus we feel towards the need for immediate protection of this precious resource. A recent standing-room-only crowd of 350 people at the historic opera house in Clayton, New York managed to break this mold by demonstrating overwhelming unanimity of opinion in protecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River from damaging navigation plans. The occasion was a public hearing regarding a potential $20 million study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). Though the testimony was diverse, the conclusions of the speakers were remarkably consistent. This consensus was best summarized by the closing statement of Bea Schermerhorn, a St. Lawrence River region resident: “Please gentleman,” she said, “pick up your tools, pack your bags and go away.”
The Seaway Navigation Study in question refuses, however, to go away; it is a particularly stubborn and insidious idea that has been around for decades. The original idea of this study (and its predecessors) was to assess the feasibility of deepening the Seaway channel and widening its locks to accommodate today’s huge ocean-going cargo vessels. And while the scope of the study has supposedly changed, and the study team, lead by the Corps’ and Transport Canada, are quick to state that expansion is off the table and they are focusing on assessing the maintenance needs of the deteriorating Seaway infrastructure, the speakers in Clayton were skeptical that the shift in focus was genuine. Part of the reason is that the Clayton speakers have done this before, they know first hand that the US Congress can redirect the Corps at any time to put expansion on the front burner once again.
An impressive roster of residents, academics, and public officials listed the many hazards of drastic Seaway expansion: from temperature changes and corrosive wave action to the acceleration of the introduction of non-native species. They all concluded with predictions of the enormous negative effects these factors would have on the ecology and economy of the St. Lawrence River and the entire Great Lakes Basin.The predictions were partly based on the previous experience with the indifference of commercial interests in the Seaway, and the ongoing problems incurred by the way shipping operates even today.
Coming at a time when much needed public policy measures such as the recently released amendment to the Great Lakes Charter (known as the Annex – perhaps the most important water management document of a generation), the proposed Congressional Great Lakes Restoration funding initiatives, and the significant need to stop more aquatic invasive species from entering the Great Lakes through new policy and regulations including for the shipping industry, this study by the Corps is a particularly unfortunate diversion. All attention should be focused on the genuine protection and restoration of the Great Lakes, inland lakes,wetlands, rivers, streams, and groundwater. And any planning for the commercial navigation system that does happen must require ships and shippers to operate within the physical and ecological limits of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.