By Alex Binkley

Betty Sutton plans to travel a lot as part of her first full year as Administrator of the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. (SLSDC), so she can fully appreciate the entire marine transportation network. A former member of Congress from Ohio, Sutton joined SLSDC last August. While she will be in Antwerp for the breakbulk conference this spring as part of a Seaway trade development initiative, most of her trips will be within the Great Lakes region, she explained in an interview. “I want to visit all the ports, carriers and marine terminals. I want to get out there and see what I can of the waterway, so I view it as a complete system.”

New technology and mechanization are changing the industry and she wants to see it firsthand. She also wants to maintain close cooperation with The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC), looking for ways to develop trade and also make the public more aware of the potential for the Seaway-Great Lakes to support economic growth while protecting the environment. “We can have sustainable development and lower air emissions,” she points out. “We have to take up the challenge of getting the message out.”

She and Terence Bowles, President of SLSMC, both noted that the arrival this year of more of the new freighters ordered by Algoma Central and CSL present a great opportunity for highlighting the environmentally-friendly status of marine shipping. One of them will be the opening act for the Seaway locks this year. Bowles also praised Sutton’s plan for a Great Lakes tour. “We have to get out there and support our ports and understand their issues.” There will likely be joint events in some ports.

SLSDC is also fully engaged in drawing attention to the threat that ballast water regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency pose to the viability of marine transportation on the Great Lakes, Sutton said.

The message which is being advanced by the Canadian Shipowners Association (CSA), has gained some support in Congress. At a recent hearing of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo said that while the Coast Guard and EPA have the obligation to protect the environment, they must balance that with the free flow of maritime commerce. The ballast rules are extremely costly, burdensome and duplicative and “are not being applied and enforced in a fair manner.”

The Coast Guard and EPA rules “differ in vessels covered, geographic reach, enforcement, and penalties for noncompliance.” Unlike the USCG, the EPA rules don’t provide for an extension “if treatment technologies do not exist or cannot be installed by the deadline. The EPA provides no mechanism for an extension, leaving a vessel owner liable for civil and criminal penalties through no fault of his own. “The situation only becomes more confusing and burdensome for vessel owners as each individual state adds its own ballast water discharge requirements on top of the EPA’s program.  Under the EPA’s current program, 25 states have added their own differing discharge standards,” he added. “Some states have laws in place forcing vessel owners to treat their ballast water to a standard for which no technology has yet been invented. The situation is ridiculous. It is completely unreasonable to ask vessel operators to comply with two federal standards and as many as 25 different, contradictory, and unachievable state standards.”

CSA has asked a U.S. court to order the EPA to delay implementation of its ship ballast regulation that came into effect Jan. 1. As it now stands, all foreign ships entering American waters to have a certified ballast treatment system on board. Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association, said in an interview the EPA’s refusal to acknowledge that there are no qualified treatment systems for the Great Lakes “imposes requirements that are currently impossible” for Canadian ships. American Great Lakes vessels are exempt from the requirement.

Not complying with the U.S. regulation would be a criminal offence and Canadian shipowners aren’t going to thumb their noses at it, he added. The Coast Guard has been providing extensions, and the EPA says ballast regulations will be a low enforcement priority. However, that doesn’t provide much comfort.

CSA has joined an ongoing court case in the Second Circuit Federal Court in New York State that seeks a ruling that orders EPA to at least match the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision not to enforce ballast treatment rules until certified technology is available. The action against EPA was launched by American and foreign shipowner and shipping groups. He wouldn’t speculate on what might happen if the EPA doesn’t change its rules by the time the Great Lakes/Seaway reopens. Canadian ships have to sail through American waters to travel from Montreal to Thunder Bay and that could leave them liable for action by EPA.

Under the U.S. rules, any ship sailing beyond Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence would have to have certified ballast equipment on board. Since 2006, Canada and the U.S. have allowed ships that have sailed in salt water to enter the Seaway only if they have conducted a ballast water exchange at sea. There have been no new ship-caused introductions of invasive nuisance species in the Great Lakes since then.

The Seaway-Great Lakes will also be getting more attention this year from the conference of Great Lakes Governors and Premiers. Last year it launched the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Maritime Initiative and created a task force to advocate for and implement changes needed to improve the regional maritime transportation system. It wants the transportation links in the Great Lakes region to be beefed up “to increase the economic competitiveness of the entire region,” the conference said in a declaration last summer. “There are a wide variety of opportunities and structural arrangements to fund the improvement of the regional maritime infrastructure network, including but not limited to governmental investment, private capital, public-private partnerships and creative financing mechanisms.

“The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system is one of our region’s competitive advantages and a key to continued prosperity,” it noted. Regional collaboration is required to protect it and coordinate needed investment. However, a number of barriers and challenges prevent the regional maritime system from being used to its full potential, including but not limited to regulatory hurdles; old and un-replaced infrastructure; inadequate dredging; seasonal waterway closures; and an aging fleet.”