Shipping waste: Lots of fuss over a little dust

Reading the Aug. 22 article, "Ruling on ships' waste cargo ahead," I was immediately struck by the number used to describe how much cargo sweeping is going on across the Great Lakes. While I hesitate to accept as accurate that 2 million pounds of...

Reading the Aug. 22 article, "Ruling on ships' waste cargo ahead," I was immediately struck by the number used to describe how much cargo sweeping is going on across the Great Lakes. While I hesitate to accept as accurate that 2 million pounds of waste cargo a year are swept from the decks of boats and into the lakes, a number like 1 million -- of anything -- has a far more dramatic, and damning, impact on readers than a figure like 1,000 tons.

And just how dramatic, really, is the amount of cargo sweeping on the lakes? Even at 2 million pounds, it amounts to just 0.000606 percent of the total cargo hauled on the Great Lakes -- and that's the entire span of the lakes; not just Lake Superior and not just the Minnesota waters.

The suggestion in the article that materials shouldn't be allowed to "pile up on the lake bottom" is rooted in complete fantasy. The U.S. Coast Guard invested millions and spent many years searching for cargo residue. There is no cargo piled up on the lake bed. Even on regularly traveled steamer routes the Coast Guard was hard-pressed to find even insignificant amounts of residue. Quantities in the worst cases were measured in parts per million.

Most cargo waste is dust, and while everyone has heard all about mercury and terrible things in cargo dust, very little empirical evidence exists to support any harm being done. We need to compare what small amounts might be found to what occurs in natural runoff.

Since the article subjected readers to "I think" and "we believe" in arguments about whether sweepings are harmful, I'll add my own: I think the amount of dust falling from the sky every day across the lakes is far more than what's swept off ships in an entire year.


The Coast Guard has reported that the impact is extremely small, almost immeasurable. (The more than 200-page report can be found through the U.S. Coast Guard Web site under document "USCG-2004-19621"). Whether we went back to having absolutely no regulation on cargo sweeping or we impose a Draconian regulation, the overall impact on the lakes would be negligible, if not undetectable.

The Great Lakes shipping industry is small but extremely efficient. We on the lakes are able to move a ton of material about 1,400 miles on a gallon of fuel. But being small, the industry is an easy target for regulators and politicians who want to show they're doing something. And since the ships are large, it's easy for the general public to believe they're big polluters.

Consider that the crew on my ship is 21 people and that there are about 100 ships, both U.S. and Canadian, plying the entire lakes. That's a total ship population of less than the city of Proctor. What is Proctor's environmental impact on the Midwest or the whole of the lakes?

Major sources of pollution or sediment in the Great Lakes include runoff from agriculture and from lawns, streets and shoreline development. Those sources have more impact than ships but also tend to be left alone because they are greater political hot potatoes.

I think as a country we need to be very careful of the effects of feel-good and we're-doing-something politics. I also think we need to be careful about states individually getting involved in interstate-trade issues.

The Great Lakes shipping industry is being hit with increasing regulation. Some proposals would drive us out of business directly or because we wouldn't be able to compete with other modes of transport.

My ship, the Paul R. Tregurtha, hauls 2,000 semi truck loads, or more than six unit train's worth, of cargo at a time. Would driving shippers out of business actually make anything cleaner? Consider that the materials still would need to get where they have to go. Shipping, by far, is cleaner than alternative modes of transport.

I'm concerned when agency personnel, not elected officials, advocate a position that could result in more power and employees for their domain. I invite everyone to actually read the regulations and to realize that a cargo-sweeping restriction about to be approved by the Coast Guard is in response to the dumping over the side and into the ocean of "dunnage," packing materials that float. It's not in response to the practice of washing dust off Great Lakes vessels.


If we as a nation are to have effective and reasonable regulations we must remove the emotion and the "I think." We must use the same quantifications so we can make informed decisions about whether it's really worthwhile to prohibit or to restrict how we use our resources.

TIMOTHY J. DAYTON is captain of the 1,013-foot ore carrier, the Paul R. Tregurtha.

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