Cargo shipments along the St. Lawrence Seaway are projected to rise by about 7 percent this year, recovering nearly to pre-recession levels, according to Seaway officials.
The Seaway reopened Tuesday for its 53rd navigation season.
"Projections for the 2011 season foresee continued strength in the traditional staple cargoes of grain and iron ore," Terence F. Bowles, president and CEO of the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., said in a news release. "Shipments of road salt are projected to increase to replenish inventories depleted over a challenging winter season. Project cargo is pegged to rise due in part to continued activity in the oil sands."
Last year, the Seaway saw a rebound in its total cargo volume with a 15 percent increase over 2009 — from 30.5 million metric tons to 35.5 million tons in 2010. This year, officials expect shipments to grow to 39.1 million tons — reaching almost the 2008 shipment volume of 40.8 million tons before the economic recession.
Mr. Bowles said Seaway clients also are investing more than $350 million to equip its fleet with fuel-efficient engines in an effort to make shipping a more energy-efficient mode of transportation.
U.S. Seaway Administrator Collister W. Johnson Jr. said that shipping already is and "continues to be the most energy-efficient mode of transportation " and that it can help "lessen our dependence on imported petroleum."
However, environmental advocates, including Save the River in Clayton, criticized the Seaway on Tuesday for promoting a "greener image" while fighting regulations that would help protect the region's natural resources.
"It's frustrating to see the Seaway and shipping industry launch a campaign promoting a greener image while they continue to put themselves on the wrong side of the environmental policy debate," said Jennifer J. Caddick, executive director of Save the River.
Seaway officials, along with shipping companies and the Canadian government, have openly opposed New York state's stricter regulations for the treatment of ballast water — which require vessels to be outfitted with costly treatment systems far more advanced than international shipping standards by 2012.
Ballast water, which allows ships to maintain stability during transits, is believed to be a major source of the introduction of foreign invasive species such as zebra mussels and round gobies.
While environmental groups praise the state Department of Environmental Conservation's ballast standards, which were approved in 2008, opponents have argued that the requirement would kill the Seaway's shipping industry.
Save the River also has criticized the Seaway for its efforts to lengthen the shipping season with ice-breaking activities.
The group has long argued that ice breaking could damage the coastal fish and wildlife habitats and that winter shipping poses an even greater environmental threat because of the difficulty of cleaning up an oil spill under ice.
Although a three-year joint observational study released in 2010 found that ice-breaking activities on the St. Lawrence Seaway had "no adverse impact on the shoreline," environmental groups argue that the findings of the limited study cannot be generalized to the entire Seaway.
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Martha L. Black has been breaking ice along the shipping channel since Saturday to tie March 22, 2008, for the Seaway's second-earliest opening. The earliest opening date was March 21, 2007.
Ms. Caddick said Save the River is somewhat relieved that there is little ice on the main channel despite the relatively early opening this spring, but she said the threat of an oil spill remains.
"They have been extending the length of the shipping season without input from environmental agencies nor our government officials," she said, adding that the Seaway's "lack of transparency" is "incredibly frustrating."
In 2010, Save the River filed a petition under the federal Administrative Procedures Act demanding the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. reveal its formula for setting the Seaway's opening date.
The petition was denied on the grounds that U.S. law doesn't apply to the Canadian corporation, which refused to disclose the information to the public. Ms. Caddick said the group will continue to find ways to force the Seaway to become more transparent.