U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet ready to meet needs of commerce
Crews are readying the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet for another shipping season. Five dry bulk vessels resumed operation prior, but the bulk of the fleet got underway once the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan opened March 25.
Last year, U.S.-flag lakers hauled 85.7 million tons of cargo, an increase of 3 percent over 2016. Iron ore for steel production was the largest single commodity carried by U.S.-flag lakers—46 million tons. Limestone cargoes totaled 21.55 million tons. Coal shipments topped 13.3 million tons.
Cargoes of cement, salt, sand and grain approached 4.9 million tons.
“The fleet is ready,” said James H.I. Weakley, President of Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA). “Our members spent $65 million maintaining and modernizing their vessels during the winter.”
LCA is working a number of issues that will affect the future of U.S.-flag shipping on the Lakes. Key among them is having another heavy icebreaker built for service on the Great Lakes. The cargoes delayed or cancelled this past December and January because of heavy ice topped 1.5 million tons. Congress has authorized construction of another heavy icebreaker. LCA’s focus is now getting the $240 million vessel funded.
The association continues its efforts to have a second Poe-sized lock built at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. In 2017, the 48-year-old Poe Lock handled 90 percent of the 75 million tons that passed through the Soo Locks. A Department of Homeland Security report estimates that 11 million Americans would lose their jobs if the Poe Lock was out of service for six months.
A second Poe-sized lock was authorized at full federal funding in 2007, but has been stalled by a flawed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that significantly understates its benefit/cost (b/c) ratio. A new Corps study should be completed soon which should show a very positive b/c ratio. A 2017 study commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department puts the project’s b/c ratio between 2.0 and 4.0, well above the level required for inclusion in an administration budget.
Passage of federal legislation establishing a uniform, federal discharge standard for ballast water is another LCA priority. Currently both the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate ballast water discharges. In addition, seven of the eight Great Lakes states have their own requirements. The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act would impose the highest ballast water management standard currently achievable and assign oversight and enforcement to the Coast Guard. The EPA and individual states would continue to have input on raising the standard as technology advances.
Increased funding for dredging has reduced the backlog of sediment clogging Great Lakes ports and waterways, but more than 14 million cubic yards of sediment need to be removed before vessels can consistently carry full loads. Depending on the size of the vessel, ships and tug/barge units lose anywhere between 50 and 270 tons of cargo for each inch loaded draft is reduced by lack of adequate dredging. LCA continues to work with Congress to ensure Lakes dredging is adequately funded.