Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 3 - 4, July - December 2002

The Shipping News: Great Lakes or Great Lanes

As winter approaches, ice is quietly forming throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. However, the battle to ensure the sustainability of these water bodies continues to rage hotly across the U.S. and Canada.

A recent catalyst for this debate was the 2002 release of a discussion paper by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). Known as the Reconnaissance Report for the Great Lakes Navigation System Review (GLNSR), this paper has greatly alarmed legislators, non-governmental organizations, and the public at large on both sides of the international boundary.

In essence, the Corps' paper recommended that a $20 million "feasibility study" be undertaken to evaluate the development of an 11 metre deep navigation waterway throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. The apparent objective of this proposal is to allow "Panamax size" ships (295 metres, or 1,000 feet, in length) to enter and transit the Great Lakes for commercial purposes.

To accommodate these larger ships, a number of significant and costly construction activities would be necessary. For example, numerous channels and harbours would have to be deepened and widened, and some islands in the Thousand Islands area would likely have to be blasted. Additional "enhancements" - such as upgraded locks and dams - would also be required. The projected total cost of the navigation system expansion has been estimated in the range of $10 to 15 billion. The Corps is proposing that the Canadian government shoulder half the cost of the feasibility study. Canada has not yet agreed to participate and has a chance to scuttle this proposal because 13 of the 15 locks involved are in Canada.

Aside from its staggering economic costs, there are a number of serious environmental concerns about the Corps' proposal. For example, dredging lake beds and river bottoms not only will result in the destruction of fish habitat, but it would also re-suspend and disperse contaminated sediments. Even if contaminated dredgings are excavated from the watercourses, there is the intractable question of where to safely dispose of hundreds of millions of cubic metres of contaminated materials. In addition, the influx of more, bigger foreign ships clearly facilitates the introduction of additional (and undesirable) exotic species, thereby threatening biodiversity within the Great Lakes. Concern has also been expressed about increased shoreline erosion, property damage, wetlands degradation and water turbidity arising from surge waves from the bigger ships.

More fundamentally, the GLNSR raises serious concern about the proper vision for the future use and management of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. In essence, it appears that the Corps envisions the development of these watercourses into shipping superhighways. While waterborne commerce is undoubtedly important, it does not necessarily follow that private shipping interests should prevail over the broader public imperative of restoring and protecting ecosystem health throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

Moreover, there is considerable concern that the mega-expansion of shipping infrastructure may reduce or divert public funds that should otherwise be dedicated to environmental protection and remediation efforts, particularly in toxic "hot spots" around the Great Lakes.

To get involved with the organized resistance to this proposal and to get regular updates, contact Jennifer Nalbone, Habitat and Biodiversity Field Coordinator, GLU at

If you share our concern about this proposal please write to:

Minister of Transport,
David Collenette,
Transport Canada, Ottawa , ON K1A 0N5.

Also send a copy to your Member of Parliament.