The bottom line is that the Seaway never lived up to its promise of being a passageway to economic growth. That’s not to say that it didn’t add something; it did, but never as much as promised.
However, the St. Lawrence Seaway also did something terrible that wasn’t foreseen at all. It led to the introduction of at least 57 invasive species into the Great Lakes, which have done horrible damage and changed the lakes ecology forever.
The most famous of these are the now-ubiquitous zebra mussels, which have clogged and choked water pipes and drains throughout the Great Lakes. There are also junk fish like the round goby, which drive out native fish species, and many other parasites, like the virus that causes fish to bleed to death.
In a way, it is unfair to blame the Seaway for invasive species; we have only ourselves to blame. We discovered early on that these things were coming over in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Pretty much all we needed to do was insist they meticulously flush their ballast tanks before entering the seaway. Former State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema had an even better idea: Make the ships add chlorine to their ballast water.
But environmentalists opposed Sikkema’s idea, and lobbyists didn’t want to make commerce any more expensive. Ships‘ ballast water was exempted from regulation by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Later, when Congress passed laws requiring ships to flush their ballast tanks, those laws weren‘t enforced by the Coast Guard.
The result was an ecological nightmare.
Ironically, the St. Lawrence Seaway never lived up to its economic potential either. When it was formally opened, it was heralded as one of the wonders of the world. It was expected to carry 50 million tons of cargo each year. But that never happened.
Thirty years ago, traffic on the seaway peaked at 23 million tons -- less than half that. Since then, traffic has dwindled. Nowadays, less than 10 million tons a year pass through the locks. True, the seaway did help the Midwest join the global economy.
But it could be carrying a lot more cargo. Marcy Kaptur, the longtime congresswoman from Toledo, thinks she has an answer. Modern oceangoing ships are bigger than in 1959 -- many just too big for the Seaway. She’d like to see our government and Canada’s spend billions to widen and deepen the locks.
That’s a proposal worth examining, but only if there is ample evidence it would pay off. And nobody should support any Seaway bill that doesn’t add strong new measures against invasive species. The Great Lakes are the most important source of fresh water this nation has. If we ruin them, we will be finished.
Let’s try not to forget that.