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Seaway traffic down five per cent in 2008

“It doesn’t look like the Mississippi moved more grain.”

– DICK CORFE, ST. LAWRENCE SEAWAY MANAGEMENT CORP.

St. Lawrence Seaway officials have a mystery on their hands. Shipments of U. S. corn and grain through the waterway dropped by more than half in 2008, largely accounting for the system’s overall five per cent decline in traffic for the year.

Dick Corfe, CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., says less business for the system wasn’t a surprise, with the downturn in the global economy and collapse of the U. S. home-building industry.

The seaway handled 40.7 million tonnes of freight during 2008, compared to 43 million tonnes during 2007. Iron ore shipments were off fractionally while coal and other bulk commodities including salt were stronger.

The other seaway bellwether, general cargo, which is usually dominated by imports of overseas steel, was down 500,000 tonnes because of an ongoing rationalization in the steel industry. On the plus side, imports of wind turbine components rose significantly, Corfe noted. There were almost 200 fewer vessel transits.

But he would sure like to know what happened to the U. S. grain.

“It doesn’t look like the Mississippi moved more grain,” he said. There is some thought that rising demand for corn for ethanol might have siphoned off exports through the seaway.

In 2006, six million tonnes of

U. S. corn and other crops went through the waterway. Canadian grain shipments were almost the same in 2008 as in the previous year.

Compounding the grain export problem was the lower number of general cargo shipments, which meant fewer ocean-going vessels entering the system that would load grain at Duluth or Toledo as a backhaul, Corfe said.

The seaway closed Dec. 30 after a 280-day season. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary during 2009 but Corfe granted it’s far too early to hazard a guess what kind of year it will be for vessel traffic.

“We’re in uncharted territory and it’s hard to know what will happen.”

The seaway is working on events to celebrate its diamond anniversary, including a gala opening, marking April 25 as the day of the first commercial vessel transit and June 26 as the official opening by Queen Elizabeth II and then-U. S. president Dwight Eisenhower.

Last year was eventful for the seaway on a number of fronts including the signing of a new management agreement with Transport Canada, Corfe said.

As well, uniform ballast water management standards for all vessels went into effect. Canadian and U. S. inspectors in Montreal ensure no vessel is granted admission to the seaway without first complying with ballast water management practices.

“Both seaway corporations in conjunction with the U. S. Coast Guard and Transport Canada play a vital role in helping to protect the Great Lakes against the future introduction of ship-vectored invasive species,” said Terry Johnson, administrator of the U. S. Seaway Development Corp., in a St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. release.

The management corporation also concluded a new three-year labour agreement with its unionized workers, which it said provides the company with the necessary flexibility to move ahead with the development of new technology, expected to improve the system’s productivity and increase worker safety.

“The corporation has been transparent with respect to its plans to achieve a sustainable business model, and is encouraged by the common ground that we have found with the (Canadian Auto Workers union) on critical issues,” Corfe said in a release.

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