Frigid Conditions Slowing Shipping Industry

Renee Passal
January 02, 2018 10:43 PM

The ore boats sitting out on the water may make a picturesque shot for photography buffs. But it's a less than ideal sight for operators of vessels on the Great Lakes.

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'Time is money' is a saying that does apply to the water. And the captains and their crews are having to wait longer than normal to load iron ore pellets.

The bitter cold temperatures are making things difficult at the docks. Jim Sharrow, Director of Port Planning and Resiliency of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, explained more over the phone with us. 

For example, he told us the docks over in Superior, at Allouez, are run by BNSF. They have 3 miles of conveyer belts that move the pellets, according to Sharrow, and that is 3 miles of area that could encounter a problem. Also, pellets can get stuck in the ore cars, or the cars can break down themselves. And on the boats themselves, the hatches can ice over, and there can be 20-30 hatches.

Some of that ice was visible on the front of the Thunder Bay, as she sailed under the lift bridge around 11:30am on Tuesday.  Despite the frigid conditions, folks like Nick Cooley and Emily Meyer rushed out to see her.

"It was the first time I've seen it, so it was very cool," Meyer told us. Cooley added, "Well, I've seen them come in during the summer. It was neat covered in ice from the fog on the lake. Amazing to see it draped off the anchor."

The Thunder Bay was set to deliver salt at Hallett Dock, and then head to Two Harbors to pick up pellets, according to Sharrow. 

There are around 1 to 1.5 million tons of pellets scheduled to be loaded yet this season. But with the delays, they might not all make it to the steel mills. The mills are stockpiling right now, in anticipation of the closure of the Soo Locks on January 15th.

The Lake Carriers Association said they are facing challenging conditions throughout the system. Glen Neksavil sent a statement: "The U.S. Coast Guard is doing its best, but we need more icebreakers.  This is why Lake Carriers' Association continues to work to have another heavy icebreaker of the MACKINAW's caliber built for the Lakes.  The Soo Locks close in 13 days.  Come January 15, steel mills and power plants will be cut off from their supply of iron ore and low-sulfur coal.  These final cargos are key to manufacturing and power generation continuing during the Lakes' winter closure."

Several vessels have gotten stuck in the ice already. And there were high winds on Tuesday, adding to the challenges. So Sharrow thought some vessels, even if they load up, may not leave right away. He said the winds are supposed to subside a bit on Wednesday.

The Soo Locks will reopen again in March.


Renee Passal

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