Great Lakes thaw out, but federal dredging money still frozen

In what would be good news for Detroit Edison and other utilities that use the Great Lakes to transport coal, the Lake Carriers’ Association said March 15 that the lake system is opening up due to the ongoing thaw of winter ice that blocks lake usage during the coldest months.

The first vessel to get underway was the tug/barge unit DOROTHY ANN/PATHFINDER on March 5. The vessel will spend the month shuttling iron ore within Cleveland Harbor, the association noted.

Next to sail was the cement carrier SAMUEL DE CHAMPLAIN/INNOVATION. The tug/barge unit left its winter berth in Cleveland on March 7 and sailed to Alpena, Mich., where it loaded cement to resupply silos in Chicago.

The self-propelled laker JOSEPH L. BLOCK opened the season at Escanaba, Mich., by loading an iron ore cargo bound for Indiana Harbor on March 15. Also that day the motor vessel MESABI MINER initiated the coal trade by loading a cargo in Superior, Wisc., for delivery to Marquette, Mich.

More vessels will be getting underway in the days and weeks ahead, with many timing their departure with the March 25 opening of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which connect Lake Superior, the uppermost Great Lake, to Lake Huron.

U.S.-flag Great Lakes operators moved 93.8 million tons of cargo in 2011, an increase of 5.7% over 2010, the association noted. The U.S.-flag Lakes fleet is the largest assembly of self-unloading vessels in the world. The ships and tug/barge combinations are designed to discharge cargo without any assistance from shoreside equipment or personnel and can unload as much 70,000 tons in about ten hours.

These operations, though, are threatened by the deepening dredging crisis on the Great Lakes. Years of deficient federal funding for dredging have left more than 17 million cubic yards of sediment clogging ports and waterways, the association said. Just last fall shipments to St. Joseph, Mich., had to be suspended until emergency funds could be found to clear the harbor. A much-needed coal cargo for the power plant in Holland, Mich., could not be delivered in December because of a build-up of silt in the harbor. Ships have been unable to deliver coal to Dunkirk, N.Y., since 2006 because of insufficient depth in the harbor, the association added.

The federal budget for 2012 will dredge only 16 of the 63 federally-maintained ports on the Great Lakes. The Obama Administration actually intended to dredge only 11 ports, but Congress increased the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., added five ports back to the list.

Naturally fluctuating water levels on the lakes exacerbate the dredging crisis. “The dredging crisis, on the other hand, is entirely man-made,” the association said. “For the last 25 years the federal government has levied a nationwide tax on waterborne cargo to pay for dredging. The tax revenue is deposited in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (‘HMTF’). In a typical year the HMTF takes in about $1.6 billion. However, the government generally only spends about half of dredging tax receipts on dredging. The rest of the money is used to paper balance the budget.”

The association represents 17 American companies that operate 56 U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes and carry various raw materials, including iron ore and fluxstone for the steel industry, aggregate and cement for the construction industry, coal for power generation.

Through its Midwest Energy Resources (MERC) subsidiary, Detroit Edison operates the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal (SMET) at the west end of Lake Superior, which was commissioned in 1976 to provide for the low-sulfur western coal needs of the Detroit Edison power plants in southeastern Michigan. This rail-to-vessel terminal has sufficient capacity and design flexibility to accommodate the coal transshipment needs of additional electric utilities and industrial firms throughout the Great Lakes region, the MERC website noted.

The SMET facility’s specs include 25.5 million ton present annual transshipment capacity and 5 million ton present total on-site storage capacity.

A March schedule for the terminal, posted on March 2, shows the first coal vessel loading of 58,000 tons was due March 17, with that vessel then heading for the Presque Isle facility on Lake Superior of We Energies. That vessel, the Mesabi Miner mentioned by the association, was due to enter the port on March 15.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.