Is Windsor-Detroit ferry the best option for hazardous materials?

by Ron Stang

WINDSOR, Ont. –A University of Windsor professor says a chemical spill from a truck using the Windsor-Detroit truck ferry, which carries hazardous material, is “just a matter of time” and would be far worse than if the spill happened on the neighbouring fixed links Ambassador Bridge or tunnel connecting Windsor and Detroit.

Doug Haffner, who has studied the ecosystem of the Great Lakes for 40 years, says “the lesson we’re learning” from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Enbridge oil pipeline spill into a Michigan river, is that “when a spill does occur in something like the Detroit River we just can’t recover it. The flow and the complexity of the system are such that if anything did happen the ability to have a contingency plan is zero.”

Haffner, Canada research chair for Great Lakes Environmental Health, says the Detroit River itself “is the issue here.”

He said the narrow river, which acts as a conduit funnelling water from the upper Great Lakes to the lower ones of Erie and Ontario, is deep, fast-flowing and turbulent.

“It’s a very powerful river,” he said. “You’re talking about close to 2% of the global water supply just whooshing down that river system.”

Haffner said if a spill were to occur it’s not like the chemical might lie on top of a stable body of water. “It’s not a matter that any material would just sit on the surface and you can just kind of skim it off.” Nor, he said, could authorities “build a dam that will contain” the hazard.

The truck ferry has been in operation 20 years and entered service on Earth Day 1990 proclaiming itself a safe alternative for HazMat cargoes compared to the area’s fixed crossings, where dangerous goods are banned.

The closest crossing that does allow HazMat is the Blue Water Bridge between Sarnia and Port Huron, Mich. The ferry has touted itself as a “safe” alternative to going the Sarnia route, saving carriers as many as four hours or 264 kms by avoiding the northerly route.

The ferry has never had an accident.

“We have a 20-year safe operating record with no incidents or accidents,” ferry company vice-president Gregg Ward said.

Haffner says he isn’t disputing that or taking issue with the ferry operation itself.

“It’s not a putdown of the actual ferry,” he said. “They have a great safety record.” But his concern is “if something did happen,” suggesting that based on the law of averages “it’s just a matter of time.”

Haffner likened the danger to the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, noting “thousands of wells” have operated without incident. “But it just took one to blow to cause a major environmental disaster.”

Haffner didn’t think any containment solution was possible for the ferry, which is actually a barge pushed by a tug boat.

“Nothing,” he said. “(The river) is too fast, it’s too complex. It’s three-dimensional.”

Other local crossings, including the truck traffic-heavy Ambassador Bridge -the busiest commercial crossing in North America -are prohibited from carrying HazMat under the US federal government’s national hazardous materials route registry.

Ward was adamant the ferry has strong procedures in place to prevent such an incident, saying it has “extensive security and safety response procedures as well as safety measures in place to mitigate risk.” Vessels are inspected by the Canadian and US Coast Guards, the vessel only operates “in safe weather conditions.”

Drivers must submit to a “detailed manifest” electronically transmitted to Customs and law enforcement on both sides of the border before ferry departure.

Haffner said his major concern is a collision with another ship in the busy commercial freighter channel or with pleasure craft in a region with a huge concentration of recreational boat operators.

“My idea of an accident that would happen, it would probably be a collision with a boat of some sort.”

Haffner said a solution might be to allow HazMat on the Ambassador Bridge if government paid additional insurance.

“Perhaps we should be paying the insurance,” he said. “Like I’m sure there must be ways of actually using these other facilities.”

Haffner said the ultimate solution would be that the proposed new government-built bridge between Windsor and Detroit allow HazMat.

“This is being built with public money,” he said. “We should actually be looking at what is the most safe public way of moving goods.”

Doug Switzer, vice-president of public affairs for the Ontario Trucking Association, also said the lack of a fixed crossing that supports HazMat in Windsor-Detroit is an argument for the new Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) bridge.

“I would tie it to the whole debate around DRIC and suggest that’s one of the reasons why we think DRIC should be built,” he said.

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