January 25, 2022 by Alex Gault

Congress has proposed adding the St. Lawrence River to a list of water bodies in which the U.S. Coast Guard must study the impacts of oil spills.

The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes Waterways Protection Act would amend the existing rules to require the Coast Guard to study the effects oil spills have had on the river and Great Lakes, and develop best practices to respond to any future oil spills.

The legislation was introduced in the House on Tuesday by Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and Rep. Joe D. Morelle, D-Rochester.

The Coast Guard is not currently required to study the St. Lawrence River and many of the other water bodies attached to the Great Lakes, although it is required to study the Great Lakes themselves.

The rivers and streams that feed or are fed by the Great Lakes are no stranger to oil spills. In June 1976, the Barge Nepco, owned by the now-dissolved Oswego Barge Company, ran aground on Wellesley Island near Alexandria Bay. More than 250,000 gallons of oil poured into the river, damaging the environment and property along the shoreline.

Although no oil is transported through the Seaway now, according to industry experts, oil pipelines still stretch along the Canadian coastline to the north, and the ships that travel along the St. Lawrence Seaway can carry millions of gallons of fuel for their own journeys.

“The St. Lawrence River is a keystone of the north country and serves as an integral access point for shipping to enter the Great Lakes,” Rep. Stefanik said in a statement. “This bill is a critical step forward to ensure the continued protection of the St. Lawrence as part of the Coast Guard’s important work.”

Local elected officials said the legislation, if passed, would be an important step forward for the Thousand Islands. In a statement, Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent M. Sweet referenced the 1976 oil spill.

“The impact on the environment and economy was catastrophic,” he said.

“Since 1976, our community and local first responders have put endless hours into training and developing effective oil spill response protocol,” Mr. Sweet added. “Our local Coast Guard are professional and effective and patrolling and safeguarding our St. Lawrence River assets. This amendment will facilitate them in continuing their dedication to the St. Lawrence River and local communities.”

St. Lawrence County Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said he supports adding all waterways and rivers attached to the Great Lakes to the Coast Guard’s list of water bodies to monitor and prepare for oil spills.

“An all-encompassing scope would enhance the efforts to examine the impacts of current and potential issues as well as identifying the best way of dealing with them,” he said.

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