Over the past few weeks, the St. Lawrence Seaway has been celebrating its 50th anniversary. Paul Sargent, an artist and life-long River rat, recently passed along this great essay reflecting on the Seaway’s celebrations.
Hwy H2O: At What Price?
Paul Lloyd Sargent, July 8, 2009
I’m an artist. I grew up in Syracuse and now live somewhere between Brooklyn and Wellesley Island. At 38, I have spent at least a part of each of my years on the St. Lawrence River. In the last decade, I have made the River, the Great Lakes, and the Seaway the focus of my art practice as I attempt to understand and appreciate what is best for this landscape and waterway I love so dearly. I have filmed and photographed the River, written about it academically, and presented my work to audiences in cities like New York and Chicago, whose residents, despite their proximity, are often unaware of the magnitude of this precious resource. Throughout this work, the more I read, listen, observe and learn, the more I keep wondering, “What will be left? What will remain for future generations if we’ve been wrong, if humanity’s best intentions have been misguided, and if rivers must flow wild to survive and endure?”
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Seaway and I approach this anniversary with ambivalence. The child in me, nostalgic for the deep bass rumble of a ship’s engine across the water on an otherwise still August night, does marvel that something so colossal, often from so far away, can float right past my house. My position on the Seaway is nuanced with awe for human engineering alongside an apprehension that humans do sometimes undertake great projects to ill consequence, as with the Three Gorges Dam in China or the Manhattan Project.
It is hard not to marvel that a ship from as far away as Bangladesh can navigate over multiple oceans and traverse this series of locks, lakes, and rivers to reach Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is a testimony to human will-and stubbornness. I cannot help but think of Herzog’s Fitzcaraldo, dragging his riverboat over a mountaintop in the Andes, as I watch a Dutch or German salty, painted electric blue and marked with Hazmat warnings, grind its way up the channel, snaking between islands and shoals on a journey deep into the North American Midwest. It is uncanny that something as long as a city block and as tall as an office building, capable of carrying the loads of more than 800 trucks, can float. Just as I did when I was younger, I still drive up alongside them when we pass, play in their wakes, and even pull to the stern of the ship, shut off my engine, and let the prop wash shake my little boat. It’s like taunting a sea monster.
Thus, I do understand the awe and reverence the Seaway expects for a project as monumental as this. Opened in 1959 at a cost of (U.S.) $470 million after a construction feat unrivaled until China’s recent Three Gorges Dam, this bi-national venture required 22,000 workers to dredge channels, blast out shoals and islands, and to expand canals, like the Welland to by-pass Niagara Falls. A 740-foot long ship can travel 2,400 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior, an 885-foot vertical rise.
In their public relations materials, though, the St. Lawrence Seaway Corporation refers to this massive project as “Hwy H2O,” a “marine highway run[ing] between Canada and the United States.” But the St. Lawrence River is no highway. It may be immense but, like all complex ecosystems, it is a fragile one.
Lost in the celebration of the Seaway are some important points. Much like the Three Gorges Dam project, the Seaway has forever altered a vital ecosystem spanning thousands of miles. Regulating natural water fluctuations through dams and locks has devastated native fisheries and damaged shoreline habitats of countless flora and fauna. Damming and blasting has displaced thousands of people and irreversibly changed the natural environment while dredging digs up and releases buried contaminants into the water.
The Seaway’s public relations material eagerly touts Highway H2O as an “environmentally friendly transportation” alternative to trucking and trains. Unfortunately, nowhere do they mention the billions of dollars spent in the U.S. and Canada to grapple with non-native species invading fragile watersheds via ballast water of ocean-going vessels. Missing from their historical timeline are dates l
ike “June 23rd, 1976,” when the NEPCO 140 barge hit a shoal and 300,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the St. Lawrence costing (U.S.) $30 million in today’s dollars to clean up. Absent are figures regarding depleted muskellunge and sturgeon population. And gone are the stories of displaced communities, relocated to make way for dredging, blasting and flooding.
And so again I ask, as I read books and articles on the subject, talk to experts, and watch the River from my dock, “What will be left? What price this progress?” Like most people, I certainly benefit greatly from this project. But in what ways, directly and indirectly, do I also squander, without regard for the ecology of which I am a major component, what has been given to me merely by birth into this complex, interconnected world?
A Note About the Images
“Untitled Seaway Studies”
a photo series by Paul Lloyd Sargent, 2003 – 2009
The images included here are from a series of photographic and video studies of shipping vessels along the St. Lawrence River. Started in the summer of 2003 and including a number of related experimental short videos, “Untitled Seaway Studies,” transitioned from video to digital still photography in 2008 when I became frustrated by limitations inherent in the quality of video imagery. The result is an on-going series of digital images capturing regional and ocean-going vessels traveling along the river, the natural border between the U.S. and Canada and connecting the largest supply of surface freshwater on earth to seaports all over world.
To Learn More about the issues in this essay:
Visit Paul’s website
Visit Highway H20 – The Seaway’s website for their marketing campaign
Save The River’s perspective on the 50th anniversary
Sign our petition in support of a sustainable, River-friendly Seaway!