CRITICISM OF SEAWAY PILOTAGE PLAN POURS IN OPPONENTS WANT COAST GUARD TO REGULATE

CRITICISM OF SEAWAY PILOTAGE PLAN POURS IN OPPONENTS WANT COAST GUARD TO REGULATE

Opponents seem to outnumber supporters of a proposal to revamp pilotage oversight on the Great Lakes by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

The deadline for written comments on a proposal to give the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. regulatory control over pilotage was last week. A total of 77 comments were received from 65 people.Twenty-one people support the change, while 44 expressed opposition, according to the Department of Transportation.

The DOT declined to release the written comments to the press until they have been reviewed.

Some opponents of the plan to transfer some pilotage oversight away from the U.S. Coast Guard, however, did provide copies of their comments to The Journal of Commerce.

Among those who sent comments to the DOT was Vera Paktor, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, which represents vessel owners and operators.

In her comments, Ms. Paktor expressed concern that the SLSDC is not prepared to address safety issues.

"We do not believe the SLSDC, which boasts about its 'marketing' expertise, is equipped to deal with complicated safety issues," she said.

SKEPTICISM GREETS DOT

In an interview this week, Ms. Paktor expressed doubt that the DOT would pay much attention to the comments.

"I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that they won't do a good job of analyzing the comments," she said. "DOT has erected such a thick smoke screen about this from the beginning."

Under the proposal from the DOT, the SLSDC would assume responsibility for rate-making, auditing and all duties that are not "purely related to safety."

Under the plan, the Coast Guard would continue to oversee the licensing of pilots and the investigation of marine accidents. However, 13 other areas of oversight have been designated as "essentially economic functions" and would be shifted to the SLSDC. These functions include pilot availability, pilot selection, working conditions and rest periods, and the qualifying and training of pilots.

MARITIME INTERESTS OPPOSE PLAN

The plan - which was created by the DOT working group without the benefit of public hearings - has met with solid resistance from some maritime interests.

Two pilots organizations also filed comments opposing the DOT plan.

The Western Great Lakes Pilots Association, which represents pilots in District 3, which covers Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; and the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots Association, which represents District 1 pilots, who serve on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

Opponents of the plan are requesting that all pilotage oversight be kept at the Coast Guard's new National Maritime Center.

Although not opposing the transfer, Davis Helberg, executive director of the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, Minn., said he also is asking the DOT to consider keeping pilotage duties at the National Maritme Center.

"We're saying that the Department of Transportation should determine whether the National Maritime Center does indeed have the mandate, budget, staff and general wherewithal to take on the responsibility," he said. "If, on the other hand, it is determined that the NMC is not qualified, then we wouldn't object to a transfer to the Seaway Development Corp."

David G. Sanders, acting administrator of the SLSDC, is in Panama on a trade mission, and could not be reached for comment.

SEAWAY'S SPINOFF LOOMS

The plan to shift regulatory responsibility comes at a crucial time for the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. Under a proposal from the DOT, the corporation is due to be spun off as an independent agency later this year. President Clinton has announced that he will nominate ICC Commissioner Gail McDonald to take over the SLSDC later this year.

At the same time, the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, which oversees Canadian interests on the Seaway, is considering a plan to privatize Seaway operations north of the border.

Under that proposal, Canadian assets on the Seaway - mostly the lock and dam system - would remain the property of the government. Operations of the Seaway would be the responsibility of a private consortium consisting of four carriers: Algoma Central Corp. of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd. of Toronto; Canada Steamship Lines Inc. of Montreal and Fednav International Ltd. of Montreal; grain-shipping giants Cargill Ltd. and James Richardson and Sons Ltd., both of Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Louis Dreyfuss Corp. of Stamford, Conn.; and two Ontario-based steelmakers, Stelco Inc. and Dofasco Inc.

The St. Lawrence Seaway system stretches 2,700 nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the western end of the Great Lakes. The lock system that allows for ocean transits was completed in 1959.

Of the 15 locks on the system, two are administered by the SLSDC. The others are run by Canada's St. Lawrence Seaway Authority.