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Environment & Energy

Ashtabula Residents Express Concerns Over Shutdown of Great Lakes Coast Guard Stations

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ELIZABETH MILLER
/
GREAT LAKES TODAY

Security and rescue operations on Great Lakes waters are changing.  The U.S. Coast Guard is planning to temporarily shutdown eight Coast Guard stations around the Great Lake.

It’s the beginning of a larger transition aimed at improving the efficiency of stations around the nation.  But Elizabeth Miller of Great Lakes Today  in Cleveland reports on one Ohio community that doesn’t want to see its Coast Guard unit go. 

Out on a daily patrol around northeastern Lake Erie, three Coast Guard crew members search for unsafe boating activity.  They also stop to check out recreational boats.

Sixty miles east of Cleveland, Ashtabula sits on the coast of Lake Erie. Its Coast Guard station is a small house along the Ashtabula River.

The city’s Coast Guard is one of the Great Lakes stations facing seasonal shutdowns. So for Ashtabula and three other stations in Michigan, crew members will work out of other stations during winter and early spring.  Further west, four stations in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan will be on a weekend-only rotation from Friday to Sunday – even in the summer.

Ashtabula County officials are not happy about the plan – and they gathered in a meeting room at the county’s old courthouse to express their concerns.

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Credit ELIZABETH MILLER / GREAT LAKES TODAY

An hour is unacceptable
County Commissioner Dan Claypool worries that water rescue response times might be longer. Coast Guard boats would have to come from the stations at Fairport Harbor, Ohio, or Erie, Pa., if the station is ‘seasonalized.'

“If we have to depend on a response out of Erie and or Fairport – that leaves us about an hour of response time. I don’t think anybody in this room thinks an hour response time to an emergency is acceptable,” Claypool said.

Geneva Fire Department Chief Dale Arkenburg says that only the Coast Guard is capable of handling problems when the water is rough.

“The resources that the county water rescue team has are not boats worthy of being on the lake in certain conditions. The conditions have to be favorable – during a rescue sometimes that’s not the case,” Arkenburg explained.

Thomas Smile remembers one of those times.  He hunts ducks on Lake Erie.

The ins and outs of Lake Erie
“I’ve seen boats go down - it was just bobbing up and down. The Coast Guard came down and got it.  We were on the other side – nothing we could do because we’d have to cross rough water to get it,” Thomas Smile.

Smile’s been hunting since he was 14 – born and raised in Conneaut, Ohio.  He knows the ins and outs of Lake Erie, but he says not all duck hunters have that knowledge.

“Here’s my point – If the lake’s at the point where I feel like I don’t trust it – I don’t go out. But you have people that have traveled for miles to go hunt. You think they’ll give up their day of hunting because they think the water is a little rough?” Smile said.

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Local Coast Guard Schedule

The discussion has moved beyond Ashtabula county lines, too.  US Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter to the Coast Guard Commandant in May, requesting a private discussion about Ashtabula.

According to Lorne Thomas of the Coast Guard, the main reasons for the shutdowns are advances in technology and overlapping coverage between stations. And with some areas covered by 4 or 5 stations, Thomas says the Coast Guard just isn’t busy enough to keep every facility open.  From October to April over the last 8 years, Station Ashtabula had 50 calls to their station, total – and 11 of them were false alarms. 

“If a fireman is called up once every 2 years, he or she is not going to be that good. You can have a fireman with a bucket on each corner, but how effective, how proficient are they going to be?” Thomas said.

The first of many
Thomas says these Great Lakes stations are the first of many nationwide that will face shutdowns.

“There’s an effort also in New England, which they’re going to look at for next year.  And also in the mid-Atlantic states somewhere between New Jersey and Virginia,” Thomas said.

The details of each station’s plans are still being ironed out – a couple of stations may maintain ice rescue capabilities.  And then there’s the question of when the boating season begins and ends – but Thomas says the seasonal schedule will be flexible.  A final decision on the shutdowns will be made by the Commandant this summer.  For Great Lakes Today, I’m Elizabeth Miller.    

Great Lakes Today is a collaborative of WBFO Buffalo, Ideastream in Cleveland and WXXI Rochester.