Legal skirmish shadows Seaway opening

Legal skirmish shadows Seaway opening

OTTAWA -- The St. Lawrence Seaway opened the 2004 shipping season today amid bright traffic forecasts - and an array of legal challenges by native Canadian and American tribes, wildlife supporters and New York's state senators.

The Welland Canal connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario opened Tuesday, along with the U.S. Soo Locks linking Lakes Huron and Superior. The Montreal-Lake Ontario leg of the waterway system is slated to open Thursday morning despite requests for injunctions by Mohawks of the St. Regis tribe located on one reservation in Ontario and Quebec provinces and New York state.

An Ontario court on March 19 denied a request for an injunction to delay the opening until river ice melted, saying it would set a date for a hearing later. The Mohawks yesterday applied for a similar injunction with the U.S. District Court in Albany, N.Y., claiming icebreakers would disrupt fish habitat and hasten riverbank erosion.

"We plan to go ahead with the Montreal-Lake Ontario opening on Thursday, while waiting to see what may happen," Sylvie Moncion, spokeswoman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. in Canada, said. Albert Jacquez, administrator for the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said a late March Seaway opening has occurred in 19 of the past 25 years. "Why the sudden interest now?" he asked.

The tribes' legal actions follow efforts by Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, and the National Wildlife Federation, to block an assessment of the long-term prospects for the Seaway-Great Lakes system led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on environmental grounds.

Meanwhile, at the port of Thunder Bay, Ontario, above Duluth, Minn. Tuesday, the first grain vessel of the season was loading canola bound for Europe, elevators were full of export wheat shipments, and a vessel was enroute to Duluth to pick up iron ore.

"We're off to a strong start," said Dennis Johnson, chief executive of the Thunder Bay Port Authority.

Jacquez expected "a high single-digit percentage increase" in Canadian and U.S. grain shipments and higher steel tonnage, as "robust" elements of "a decent increase overall."