Out-of-service Soo Lock slows shipping on Great Lakes
By Brady Slater
Forum News Service
When it comes to the shipping industry, "summer sailing" is the best sailing on the Great Lakes. Not yet braced for November's gales and free of spring's lingering ice, summer sailing finds the big ore boats and other vessels running at optimal speed.
But a shutdown this week of one of the two operating Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., has slowed the industry when it least expected it.
"Summer sailing is when we're supposed to be making our best times of the year," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association that represents U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes. "Now, we've got this; this is going to have significant impact on shipping over the next eight to 10 days."
The Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the closing of the MacArthur Lock on Monday, leaving only the Poe Lock for traffic between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. One set of gates on the MacArthur Lock is not closing properly, the Corps said in a news release, estimating a minimum 10-day outage. The Corps will "dewater the lock so the cause can be determined," after which immediate repairs will commence.
The news hit the Great Lakes shipping industry like an unexpected punch.
"I don't remember, in my 41 years, it ever happening to close for this period of time during an operating season," said Jim Sharrow, director of port planning and resiliency for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and a longtime former employee of the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet of ships.
The Soo Locks are among 16 locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway navigation system, extending from Duluth to the Atlantic Ocean.
It could be worse, Sharrow said, explaining the MacArthur Lock only serves ships with a maximum size of 730 feet long and 76 feet wide. Anything larger, such as the 1,000-footers common in the industry today, must use the Poe Lock. With the 72-year-old MacArthur Lock down, the worst that can happen is congestion as all ships are rerouted through the Poe Lock.
If it were the 47-year-old Poe Lock that was down, "there would be an immediate and very negative effect on the shipping industry in general and all of the industries that depend on these ships," Sharrow said.
The prospect of losing the Poe Lock and the resulting blow to the economy came up during a congressional delegation's visit to the Soo Locks in July.
Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota and Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan visited the locks for a weekend late in the month. The Minnesota Democrat and Michigan Republican are seeking bipartisan support in Congress to fund another lock similar to the Poe.
Their visit to the locks coincided with letters they wrote to the federal Office of Management and Budget, seeking to fund an impact study that would help fast-track the replacement of the Soo Locks' Davis and Sabin locks that are no longer operational.
In his letter soliciting approval of funding for the study, Nolan wrote: "A failure at the Soo Locks would devastate America's steel, auto and other manufacturing industries that rely on Iron Range taconite."
Nolan cited a study when he later suggested a six-month closure of the Poe Lock could cause "a recession even worse than the one we experienced in 2008."
Benishek's letter said 70 percent of the cargo in transit through the locks uses the Poe Lock. He called it imperative to add a lock "capable of providing redundancy to the Poe Lock."
As it is, the effects of the MacArthur Lock being down will slow — but not stall — the industry. Still, time and tonnage lost is difficult to regain, experts say.
"In this industry, delays are a terrible thing," said Nekvasil, from his office outside Cleveland. "The vessels are already running at optimal speed. You can't load any faster; you can't discharge any faster. Lost time is very hard to regain."
"A lost ton quite often ends up to be a ton not delivered," he said.
Nekvasil said the Lake Carriers' Association cannot yet quantify any lost tonnage, but said his office will be collecting data from its 16 member companies that operate 56 U.S.-flag ships on the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, further delays loom.
"November," Nekvasil said, "is usually the month we suffer significant delays."