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Photographed not long after opening, the most westerly of the seven locks on the St. Lawrence controls traffic between the Thousand Islands and Lake Ontario, whose level is controlled by the Iroquois Dam, shown at right.
Photographed not long after opening, the most westerly of the seven locks on the St. Lawrence controls traffic between the Thousand Islands and Lake Ontario, whose level is controlled by the Iroquois Dam, shown at right.

Focus

Fallen hero: the St. Lawrence Seaway at 50 Add to ...

The official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was orchestrated to be a breathless moment in history - a "flossy, glossy" ceremony, to quote this newspaper. On the muggy afternoon 50 years ago yesterday, balloons soared, guns saluted, an American president stopped by and a rosy-cheeked Queen, just turned 33, leaned over the railing of her yacht and waved at the cheering crowds.

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Cargo freighters had, in fact, been lumbering through the new locks to Toronto and major ports on the Great Lakes for more than a month, smoothing out kinks in advance of the Royal Yacht Britannia's sleek arrival.

As it was, fog interrupted the voyage from Montreal, and the Queen turned up too late to enjoy the dinner carefully prepared for her at the hotel in Long Sault, a town created to house the many families who had lost their homes to the rising waters of the seaway and Ontario Hydro's massive new power dam.



Anne Michaels, author of The Winter Vault

But for most observers that day, a few lost villages was well worth giving ocean vessels access to the Great Lakes; to them, the seaway was an economic bonanza for Canada after decades of bickering with the United States. An engineering marvel finished on time and under budget, it had cost nearly $470-million (U.S) and taken 22,000 workers four years and nine months to build the vital 306-kilometre stretch from Montreal to Lake Ontario.

The hydroelectric dams - built at the same time and worth an additional $530-million - would fire up the bustling cities and manufacturing plants along both sides of the seaway. And this was the time of the Cold War, when the route promised secure berths for military ships and submarines, with quick passage to the ocean. The canals and locks that had widened and deepened the river path - silencing the famous Long Sault Rapids, which had 400 years earlier frustrated Jacques Cartier's travel plans - now made it possible for a transoceanic freighter the size of two football fields to deliver French perfume and Italian marble (as the first arrivals did) to inland ports such as Toronto before heading to Lake Superior to take home grain from Thunder Bay.

"It has moved the ocean a thousand miles inland," The Globe and Mail declared that day in 1959. "The effects of this cannot as yet be estimated, but we can be certain that they will be very great." Or, as the Queen put it: "We can say in truth that this occasion deserves a place in history."

The prediction proved to be true: The seaway, arguably the world's most impressive inland waterway, built at a cost that today would top $7-billion (U.S.), transformed cities along its shores, opening new markets and churning out a reliable stream of electricity. But over time, the story has become less rosy, the seaway's place in history less celebrated, its future uncertain.

Canada paid roughly 70 per cent of the bill, and has divided revenue with the U.S. accordingly. But that revenue has yet to cover the cost of construction, and often has barely covered operating costs.

Even worse, the seaway has wreaked so much havoc on the world's greatest supply of fresh water that some critics now propose that it be abandoned as a route for saltwater ships - the very notion that stirred its creators' imagination.

"It's pretty clear that the seaway has been an economic disappointment and an environ-

mental disaster for the Great Lakes," says environmental writer Jeff Alexander, whose new book, Pandora's Locks , chronicles the project's fallout. "I think it would be disingenuous to hold a celebration without recognizing some of the unintended side effects."

MUSSEL POWER

The seaway has always been the tale of two waters - salt and fresh, divided by nature but united by humanity. Even before construction began on the Montreal section, however, it was clear that mixing the ocean with the lakes came with risks. The building of the Welland Canal years ago allowed ships to circumvent Niagara Falls, but it also provided passage to the sea lamprey, a vicious "aquatic assassin," as Mr. Alexander describes it, that broke into the world's largest freshwater fish market with no natural predator to stand against it.

So perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a surprise when, in 1988, two biology students found an unusual shellfish on the bottom of Lake St. Clair, which lies between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. It turned out to be a foreign intruder that had hitched a ride on an ocean freighter and, of course, in the two decades since then, the zebra mussel has become legendary for the many millions of dollars in damage it has caused to its new habitat.





But it didn't come alone: Since the seaway opened, scientists estimate that as many as 57 foreign species (about one-third of the 185 now on record and almost all of those that have been found in the past 50 years) have arrived in the ballast water shed by saltwater ships. They have displaced native plants and animals, decimated fish stocks, even disrupted power plants.

The seaway is hardly the only cause of the Great Lakes' decline - aquaculture and recreational boating have done much damage, along with pollution from industry and agriculture - but many scientists believe that it is responsible for the most harm, and certainly let in the most destructive intruders.

Even worse, environmentalists point out, government agencies that regulate the seaway and shipping have been painfully slow to react. Only in the past two years have seaway authorities on both sides of the border made it mandatory that all ships - including those with just small amounts of ballast from ports overseas - flush their tanks in the ocean before entering the seaway. Even that isn't necessarily foolproof. Flushing may kill 95 per cent of what is in the tanks, but a troublemaker could survive.

So, 20 years after the zebra mussel arrived, "the threat still remains," says Jennifer Nalbone, an analyst with Great Lakes United, a cross-border environmental coalition. "It's a very sober anniversary."

Assessing the economic value of the seaway - and whether the environmental toll and human costs have been justified - is complicated. There is no doubt that having lots of cheap hydro as well as a watery highway has been important to manufacturing cities on the Great Lakes.

Statistics released this week show that more than 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo worth more than $375-billion have passed through the seaway, most of it between Canadian and U.S. ports.

Even so, annual tallies for "salties" have never reached the predictions made on opening day, and the early glow of having ready access to European markets - the romantic focus of those "glossy, flossy" celebrations - soon faded. Demand for grain moved to the west, other markets shifted as well, and long-distance container vessels grew too big to fit in the seaway's locks.

"It was a noble idea - it's been very valuable for domestic bulk cargo," says John Taylor, a transport specialist at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. "But the seaway has been 'locked' in time. The world has evolved and the seaway has not been able to evolve with it."

Today, as Mr. Alexander points out in Pandora's Locks , only about 5 per cent of the world's container fleet can even squeeze into the Great Lakes. By 2007, the volume of cargo carried by ocean-going vessels had dropped to nine million tonnes from a high of 23 million in 1978, and even that figure was well off early expectations.

Prof. Taylor says the salties could be replaced by as few as two 100-car freight trains running each day of the year. A study he co-wrote in 2005 calculated that the cost of closing the locks to transoceanic ships at roughly $55-million, a figure that is widely criticized by the shipping industry but is just a fraction of the $200-million environmental toll he estimates the seaway has taken on the Great Lakes.

But the seaway also has ardent defenders, who make a convincing case that it will play an increasingly important role as transportation costs rise and, ironically, the environment becomes an even greater concern. Because the loads can be so huge, transporting goods by ship uses, on average, far less fuel and doesn't clog up already congested highways.

"One ship can take 800 trucks off the road," says Bruce Bowie, president of the Canadian Shipowners Association.

In addition, the shipping industry is lobbying to have removed the 25-per-cent duty the government charges on vessels built outside Canada, which, he says, has prevented companies from making their fleets even more environmentally efficient. Steps have been taken to modernize the locks, and an incentive program lured nearly two billion tonnes of new cargo to the route last year, according to the seaway corporation. But drawing even more business by staying open through the winter would be costly, and major renovations required down the road will cost more than the seaway currently earns.

As for banishing the salties, Mr. Bowie calls it a "sledgehammer solution" that would only limit future economic growth. The seaway needs to be ready to capture some emerging market abroad, he says, just as lakers have suddenly picked up solid business in the past few years by carrying low-sulphur coal to power plants on the East Coast.

But future prospects aside, it has been a rocky 50 years for Highway H{-2}O, as the seaway has been branded by the development corporation that now oversees it, and this anniversary is not the exuberant celebration of that June day half a century past. To a large extent, the seaway's prospects depend on the global path of supply and demand. But the next half-century will decide whether it can sell itself as a clean, energy-efficient water route and earn the place in history that the Queen once said it deserved.

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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