Great Lakes winter navigation test program put on ice because of budget cuts

Recession and federal budget cuts have brought the Winter Navigation Demonstration Program on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway grinding to a halt. The program, which began in 1970, is designed to see if the navigation season on the Great Lakes can be extended beyond the traditional 81/2 months. The locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway had shut on Dec. 15 to reopen the following April 1, sending the Great Lakes freighter fleet to harbor for winter.

Shipping, steel, and other industries favor the program. The limited shipping season forces shipping companies to literally tie to the docks their investment in vessels. Their customers often have to reroute goods using more expensive transportation. For heavy industries along the lakes, the limited navigation season means burying large amounts of potentially productive land under stockpiles of coal, iron ore, and other raw materials.

Ironically, one of the program's principle supporters - big steel - isn't objecting too strongly to the test's curtailment. The recession has taken its toll on the steel industry. The industry says business does not justify operating its ore freighters this winter.

This comes as welcome news to environmentalists. The breather in the demonstration program will enable scientists to continue studying natural winter conditions in the Great Lakes and along their connecting links: the St. Mary's River between Lakes Superior and Huron and the St. Clair-Detroit River between Lakes Huron and Erie.

These studies are expected to provide the basic information needed to determine to what degree the movement of powerful freighters and ice breakers harms the ecology of the vital inland waterway. Such information was not available when the program began.

Environmentalists argue that an extended navigation season will seriously harm the lakes and connecting rivers. Moreover, they argue that there are no provisions for handling oil spills - presumably more difficult to manage in icy conditions.

Fishermen insist that the demonstration program has ruined fishing. They maintain that the movement of ships and icebreaking has kicked up the river bed, covering spawning beds with silt. As a result resort owners say they have lost business.

Landowners along the rivers connecting the Great Lakes have considered legal action to stop the program. They say ice breaking was eroding their property. Hydroelectric operators, particularly in the St. Lawrence River, said ice breaking was a threat to their turbines.

Although the ''demonstration'' portion of the winter navigation program has been delayed, associated studies continue. For the past two years the US Army Corps of Engineers has contracted through the US Fisheries and Wildlife Services for environmental studies for the connecting rivers.

In November it contracted with Artec Inc., Columbia, Md., to assess the risks of spills of hazardous substances (oil and chemicals) on the lakes during winters. In November, Michigan State University received a federal grant of almost $500,000 to continue its study of the effects of winter shipping on the St. Mary's River.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a report on the program, including recommendations for the future of winter navigation. The report was supposed to have been presented to Congress a year ago.

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