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Dock-repair hearing in Superior brings out critics of oil shipping on the Great Lakes

Try as officials did to emphasize that a public hearing Tuesday was about shoring up a Superior Bay industrial dock, most speakers were having none of it. They were suspicious that repairs will lead to the ability to ship crude oil from North Dakota and Canada across the Great Lakes.

More than 50 people packed the Superior Public Library meeting room just after noon to talk about a permit request through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to shore up the Elkhorn Industries dock. The site of the former Georgia Pacific fiberboard plant has been used for warehousing and trucking since Jeff Foster Trucking purchased it in 2003.

Controversy brewed in the early part of the year when Calumet Specialty Products announced that it was seeking an oil-shipping terminal on the harbor in Superior. At the same time, Elkhorn submitted a permit to rehabilitate its dock on Connors Point. Calumet has since said its plans are on hold while the permit proposal remains.

The DNR has said it is prepared to approve the repairs, contending that the project isn't much different from other dock improvements made throughout the port.

Ted Smith, representing Elkhorn through AMI Engineering, told the audience the repairs simply increase the uses of the dock.

"Nothing is unique about the dockwall rehabilitation," Smith said. He said the Calumet plan could be one of those uses, but the "need for the dockwall is independent."

Smith said the Calumet proposal would have to go through the expected permitting in order to use the dock to offload train tankers for shipment over the Great Lakes.

Steve LaValley, a water management specialist for the DNR, said the uses mentioned in the permitting process have included wood pellets and other raw materials off trucks and trains.

The bulk of comments from 24 people warned that a full environmental study should be needed with the prospect of crude oil distribution in the balance.

"We need to be aware of the cumulative effects," said Larry MacDonald from the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which released a study last week outlining the dangers posed by crude oil freight on the lakes. The report says preventive measures are not in place to handle the type of spills caused by tar sand oil from Alberta, which can sink to the bottom of bodies of water and can be nearly impossible to clean up.

MacDonald, who is also the mayor of Bayfield, said that while he realizes there needs to be a balance of commerce and environmental concerns, one oil spill could change Lake Superior as we know it.

"A simple act can wreck the lake," he said.

The city of Superior supports the dock repairs under its long-range goal to enhance its commercial maritime activity, said Jason Serck, the city's planning director.

"There are no grounds to deny," he said of the permit.

Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen concurred, saying the port has been a vital part of the nation's industrial distribution network for years. He warned against slowing down the repairs and holding up potential jobs.

"You can stand still, but standing still is going backwards," he said.

Hagen said he was proud that North American oil is going through the city and not the "Arabs."

That comment led to more people saying the dependence on fossil fuel is part of the problem.

Amy Wilson of Port Wing said she powers her home through wind and solar energy and produces 80 percent of her own food. She challenged others to do the same to make the issue of shipping oil moot.

"I ask all of you to take on the challenge," she said.

"Every barrel shipped is a barrel burned," said Mark Gordon of Two Harbors. He runs a charter sailing service on the lake and said that while port jobs are being touted for the project, the jobs of those who rely on a healthy lake should be considered as well.

"If it leads to tar sands, I would fear for my own job," he said.

Andrew Slade from the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said the simple dock repairs and the future oil terminal are "clearly linked."

He said he wouldn't bake each ingredient in his Thanksgiving pie separately, and the DNR shouldn't look at the dock issue apart from the oil proposal.

"We support looking at the entire project," Slade said, encouraging a full environmental review of the dock.

Phil Marquis from the Graymont limestone plant next to the Elkhorn dock said improvements would open prospects for his business.

"It provides opportunities for us," he said.

Adele Yorde, the public relations manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, reminded the audience that there are 20 private docks on the Duluth and Superior port and shoring up any of them helps them diversify. Because the port is so far inland, it is a crossroads for a variety of products needed in the U.S. heartland, she said. She said improvements allow companies to prepare for new markets.

There were 90 minutes of comments on the permit. Written comments on the dock repair will be taken until Dec. 6 by the DNR, which will make its decision in 20 days.