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A winter of discontent heats up

Thousand Islanders are up in arms about what they call a multibillion-dollar boondoggle by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a project the Corps claims will keep the St. Lawrence open for year-round navigation

Will the St. Lawrence, which is one of the most productive rivers in North America and justly famed for its duck hunting and muskie and bass fishing, be gutted? Will the spectacularly beautiful Thousand Islands be destroyed as a resort area? Will the economy of New York's North Country collapse because of "man-made" icebergs, shipwrecks, oil spills and power brownouts? Is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempting a multibillion-dollar boondoggle? These are some of the questions currently being debated in a St. Lawrence River war that is likely to spread throughout the rest of the Great Lakes system. Indeed, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, 100,000 members strong, already have charged that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is eager to sell out to the Corps in exchange for $50 million in research grants.

The central issue in this bitter controversy is winter navigation on the river, which is a section of the 2,432-mile-long St. Lawrence Seaway and is ice-bound from December to April. The Corps and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, want to test the practicability of keeping the river open in the winter. Their opponents are an unlikely lot of bedfellows, including as they do the Power Authority of the State of New York, the National Audubon Society, Ontario Hydro, local businessmen and property owners who have formed the Save the River Committee, the New York State departments of Commerce and Environmental Conservation, Governor Hugh Carey and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

It sounds crazy to wage a war over ice. What harm could possibly be done by running a couple of vessels up and down a 15-mile test stretch of the river? A lot, contend opponents, who say that the Corps hasn't done its homework on what could happen as a result. Moreover, they assert that the testing, innocent as it sounds, is in truth just the first step in a massive plan to deepen and widen the St. Lawrence for year-round shipping, to the detriment of the Thousand Islands' $48-million-a-year tourist industry. Although the Corps has yet to provide a full description of the project, opponents say that some of the Thousand Islands would have to be dynamited to widen and straighten the existing ship channel through them and that 84 million cubic yards of river bottom would have to be dredged. Dredging would endanger fish and waterfowl by modifying habitats and releasing toxic chemicals and heavy metals now bound up in bottom sediments.

Moreover, disposal of the dredge spoil, which would cover an area 335 feet high, 40 feet wide and 32 miles long, presents a considerable problem. There is also concern about the possibility of wrecks and oil spills. Blizzards, which are not infrequent in the area, can cause "white-outs," in which it is impossible to navigate properly, and there is no way known to clean up oil flowing beneath ice.

Completed in 1958 by the U.S. and Canada, the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes Seaway, which opened the North American interior to ocean shipping, was supposed to be a profitable undertaking. Instead it has been a bust. The initial estimates for tonnage were far too high, while the operation and maintenance estimates were far too low. According to the original figuring, operation and maintenance were supposed to cost $88.6 million by 1976. Instead, the cost was $298 million. Last year the Canadians wrote off $842 million in Seaway debts, and in 1970 the U.S. wrote off $22.4 million in unpaid interest charges and freed the St. Lawrence Development Corporation from further interest payments. But no matter how much of a loser the Seaway has been, Congress has continued to supply money to it. In addition, in the last eight years the Corps has received $16 million to study the practicability of winter navigation.

Three studies originally scheduled for submission to Congress next year are involved. One is to determine the insurability of ships navigating through the ice. A second is supposed to survey the economic, social and environmental consequences of winter navigation. The third study, the Demonstration Program, consists of a variety of investigations by means of which the Corps hopes to extend the commercial navigation season in the entire Seaway system. Part of the Demonstration Program calls for an ice-breaking tug and a 730-foot lake freighter to run up and down a 15-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence near Ogdensburg, N.Y. a maximum of 438 times. The Demonstration Program also calls for the Seaway Development Corporation to create 225-foot-wide navigation gaps in two booms, which are used to stabilize river ice to maintain flows for power generation, and to put 18 new ice-stabilizing structures in the river. The Power Authority contends that the gaps, which would allow the passage of ships, would also allow ice to move through, jam power plant intakes and alter water flow velocity.

The Seaway Development Corporation has spent $1.5 million to construct a 422-foot-long scale model of the stretch of the St. Lawrence that is to be used for the Demonstration Program. This model is not set up in the North Country, however, but in a shed at the Howard County Fairgrounds in Maryland. David C. N. Robb, the Seaway's Director of Comprehensive Planning, says of this unlikely location, "The model lets us create a wide variety of river and ice conditions at will and at very little expense." Still, data obtained from the model has been seriously questioned. As a matter of fact, the Seaway Development Corporation has yet to respond to criticisms on flow rates and wind conditions made by Gunther Frankenstein, chief of the Ice Engineering Branch of the Corps' own Cold Regions Research Laboratory.

Last August a group known as the Winter Navigation Board approved the continuation of the Demonstration Program by an 8-to-5 vote. Composed of representatives of government agencies and shipping interests, the board was created by the Corps and while it includes such members as the Port of Toledo and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, it has no representation at all from New York. Barry Freed of Fineview, N.Y., a TV scriptwriter who serves as the volunteer publicity man for the Save the River committee, asks, "Why not add the Port of Oswego, which with other New York ports would lose money because they would be bypassed? Why not property owners along the St. Lawrence? There is not one single representative on the board who lives within 500 miles of the Thousand Islands, the area that will be hurt most."

Last winter Dr. James Geis of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry directed a study for the Department of Environmental Conservation to assess the probable impact of the Demonstration Program on the St. Lawrence. As a result of the study, the DEC now opposes the test on three main grounds: toxic chemicals in the sediments at the boom sites could be stirred up by the installation and movements of the booms' anchors during the tests; pressure waves generated beneath the ice by the test vessels would cause extensive damage to shoreline property and structures; and, finally, there would be disruption of fish and wildlife habitats, including those of wintering bald eagles (an endangered species) that feed at open water pools, which would become iced over.

Before the DEC assessment was published, the regional offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis and Newton Corners, Mass. were curiously ambivalent about the Corps' project. In fact, last July 7 Howard N. Larsen, the regional director in Newton Corners, wrote the Corps that "the Demonstration project will not jeopardize the continued existence of the Bald Eagle." But in his very next sentence, Larsen wrote, "We are interested in obtaining information about the impact of the project on those wintering eagles."

According to Wayne Schmidt, staff ecologist of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to go along with the Corps on winter navigation on the whole Seaway system merely to obtain $50 million in research grants, which, according to projections, will become available because the Corps will need additional data from Fish and Wildlife as the project progresses. "The $50 million is being held out as the carrot for the service," Schmidt says. Noting that standard practice calls for intensive study of a project when it is proposed, not when it is under construction, Schmidt says, "The Corps is saying, 'Give us approval now, and you can study the environmental impact as we go along, and if we discover any adverse impacts, we may stop.' There's a nice bureaucratic catch phrase for this: 'Programmatic approach with a reversibility mechanism.' That is totally absurd. Nobody believes that the Corps will make a huge investment and then stop in its tracks if something is wrong. The DEC report alerted us to what could happen. Demonstrations of winter navigation on the St. Mary's River [between Lakes Superior and Huron] began four years ago, and winter shipping has become a fact even though it has not been authorized on a permanent basis. I'm now getting too many letters from members who are saying the fishery isn't what it used to be, and it's one of the greatest in Michigan. Now the Corps is talking about putting a whole lot of new booms and dams on the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, but they don't call them dams. They call them 'compensating works.' "

Not until last summer did the Corps unveil the Demonstration Program to the public along the St. Lawrence. The Corps was booed roundly at a packed five-hour meeting in the village of Alexandria Bay. It was also denounced almost unanimously at a meeting in Ogdensburg, where George Griebenow of the Fish and Wildlife Service spoke up on behalf of the Corps. "It was embarrassing," says a local resident. "Instead of defending our resources, Griebenow talked about using the river as a navigation channel because Midwest grain had to get out."

In September the Seaway Development Corporation applied to the Corps for a permit to modify the booms with gaps and to install ice stabilizers. So far, the Corps has not even ruled whether there will be a public hearing on the application. New York State argues that additional permits would be required from the DEC and that Canada's assent is also needed. The Save the River Committee has found discrepancies between the Seaway's application to the Corps and the Corps' own public notice of the project. "I'm 50 years old and I belong to the Establishment," says Mrs. Bea Schermerhorn, a marina owner on Chippewa Bay and former chairwoman of the committee. "I try to work through channels, but I want a straight deal. This fight has just begun."



To break the ice, a tug and freighter will ply a stretch of the St. Lawrence near Ogdensburg.


Thousand Island Area

Lake Ontario

Cape Vincent

Alexandria Bay