Great Lakes Dredging Crisis
The annual Great Lakes Waterways Conference, themed, “Recovery, Renewal & Reinvestment 2012,” was held during the last week of February in Cleveland, Ohio. Various industry experts from both Canada and the United States attended and participated in roundtable discussions on the current state of Great Lakes shipping and commerce. Some of the roundtable participants included David Matsuda, Maritime Administrator; Jim Weakley, Lake Carriers’ Association; Bruce Bowie, Canadian Shipping Association; John Baker, ILA.
The general consensus among participants indicated that shipping on the Great Lakes is stable with much room available to grow. Tonnages continue to improve since the 2008 economic crisis, with a notable increase in the commodities utilized in steel production. Of major concern, however, are the lack of infrastructure improvements, in particular harbor and waterway dredging. Data presented by US Army Corps of Engineers official Mike O’brien indicated the Great Lakes and their connecting river systems are on a crisis path. Normal silting of the harbors and waterways must be regularly dredged in order to maintain efficient shipping, however Congress refuses to allocate the required monies to support these projects. This diminished dredging schedule causes rivers and harbors to lose depth, which results in reduced tonnages by vessels. This in turn reduces, and in some cases eliminates altogether, the amount of cargo vessels can carry to particular ports, affecting business and ports throughout the Great Lakes. At a time when the American economy is struggling to regain momentum, this hindrance to commerce cannot be afforded.
A measure now before Congress, H.R. 1533, can eliminate the dredging crisis and ensure free flow of commerce on the Great Lakes well into the future if enacted. The bill allows for the release of funds in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for the purpose they were intended, harbor maintenance and dredging. Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) explained to conference attendees that the funds in the trust account are being held hostage by Congress so that the dollar amount can be used as a balance sheet offset to make the budget deficit appear less than it is. While many congressional members agree that these funds should be released for their intended purpose and have signed on in support of the bill, accomplishing anything in the current polarized political environment is nearly impossible. Congressman LaTourette is hopeful that sentiment may change following the upcoming presidential election, allowing for progress to be made.