I’m standing at one of the big locks in Massena New York as a tanker the size of a city block squeezes through the massive gates. Water pumps in and lifts the ship so it can continue on its way toward Lake Ontario. This tanker is carrying hazardous materials, a kind of heavy petroleum--so visitors like me are shooed away to a safe distance.
A voice through the loudspeaker announces: "At this point we have to ask everyone to come down from the observation desk. As a reminder, there is no smoking allowed."
Freighters passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway make dozens of precision maneuvers just like this one, passing through narrow locks and channels and navigating among hordes of pleasure boats.
Last year, communities along this shipping route debated whether it could be used to safely transport nuclear waste. Andrea Horvath leads the New Democratic Party in Ontario. Speaking in September of last year, she blasted a plan by a company called Bruce Power to use the Seaway to ship old nuclear reactor parts to Europe.
DAY 1: How it began
"When will the McGuinty government finally stop passing the buck and order OPG to slam the breaks on this harebrained plan to ship radioactive nuclear waste through the Great Lakes?" Horvath asked. "Seventy Great Lakes mayors, dozens of environmental groups and first nation groups all oppose shipping sixteen radioactive nuclear steam generators through the Great Lakes to Sweden."
The Mohawk and Metis First Nations communities raised the fiercest objections. The Mohawk reservation straddles the St. Lawrence River. Still, nuclear power generates more than half of Ontario’s electricity.
"This process that they’re undertaking will allow Bruce to reduce the volume of waste that they have in storage by about 90 percent," said Ontario’s Energy Minister, Brad Duguid. "That’s a pretty good contribution in terms of improving environmental circumstances here in this province and across the country..."
In February, Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission approved the shipments saying it was confident that the project could be completed safely and that the risk to people and the environment was negligible. This spring the US Department of Transportation announced that it had begun a separate review of the plan.
With a group called Save the River, Jennifer Caddick pilots her boat through one of the narrowest channels of the Seaway near Clayton New York. Houses and farms sit just a few hundred yards from the main shipping lane. Caddick said the debate took people here by surprise.
"The only way communities on the US side found out about that proposal was through media reports," Caddick said.
Caddick thinks the radioactive shipments are a terrible idea. In the months since they found out about the Bruce Power project she said her group has begun demanding more information about other kinds of hazardous materials that are already passing through the Seaway.
"So it made us question and ask what else is being transported through here that we don’t know about it? What other chemicals, or other items could be hazardous if there’s an accident," Caddick said. "We just went through that super narrow part of the river where accidents happen several times a year."
Caddick said they're still waiting to see those detailed ship manifests. Meanwhile, Bruce Power has formally withdrawn its application to the US. In a letter sent to the Department of Transportation last month, the company said the project will be delayed while they meet with First Nation Groups that still have questions about the shipment.