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Seaway officials: Shipping channel mostly clear of ice; vessel traffic slowed down as a precaution

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MASSENA - Thick ice cover throughout the St. Lawrence Seaway system that hindered transits along the shipping channel was starting to thaw last week, but concerns over possible delays in emergency responses remain.

As of Monday afternoon, four vessels navigating the St. Lawrence River were listed as “delayed” on the Seaway’s transit map, even though ice conditions along the river had improved greatly since the channel opened March 31.

Nancy T. Alcalde, spokeswoman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said the channel is mostly clear of ice, but a few ships are “waiting their turn” to proceed as the Seaway continues to perform traffic control to prevent any unwanted incidents.

“We’re pretty slow and methodical,” she said.

U.S. Coast Guard officials could not be reached for comment.

The Seaway Development Corp. and its Canadian counterpart, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., had pushed back the shipping channel’s opening date by three days because of the colder-than-usual spring — citing “bad ice conditions” and environmental concerns. Navigation originally was scheduled to resume March 28.

But critics of “winter navigation” continue to point to the difficulty of oil spill response in icy river conditions.

“We’re taking chances,” Save the River Executive Director D. Lee Willbanks said. “Opening the Seaway when bays and launches for emergency response vessels are still covered with ice is inappropriate.”

For decades, the Clayton-based environmental group has been calling for an end to ice-breaking activities and winter/early-spring navigation along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

While ships nowadays are built to withstand collision with piles of floating ice, Mr. Willbanks said, unexpected mechanical failures still can cause a vessel carrying liquid bulk to lose control, hit a shoal and spill petroleum or hazardous industrial chemicals into the river.

“If you do have a spill on or under ice, it’s very difficult to clean up,” Mr. Willbanks said.

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