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Shipping peaks as season nears end; a review of the top 2016 shipping stories

The 740-foot long CSL Niagara leaves Duluth after receiving a load of iron ore pellets Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

DULUTH, Minn. — Even with vessels steaming nonstop in and out of Lake Superior, ship owners play it close to the vest — not willing to “go there” when asked if the race is on to move as much cargo as possible in anticipation of the annual closing of the Soo Locks on Jan. 15.

“CN ore shipments for the remainder of the season are on schedule, as per our operating plan, which is designed to meet our customers’ transportation needs,” is all spokesman Jim Feeny of Canadian National Railway would say.

As owners of the Great Lakes Fleet of ships that include the popular local visitors Arthur M. Anderson, Edwin H. Gott and Roger Blough, CN would appear to be pouring it on as much as all of the other Great Lakes operators. Live maps of marine traffic found online have showed a dozen or more ships at a time on Lake Superior for the past several weeks.    

It appears to be a peaking finale to the season throughout the ports of Duluth-Superior, Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

“We’ll wind up with this fourth quarter stronger than we’ve seen the first three going in,” said Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “It was nice to see an uptick in iron ore, and certainly it was great to see advancing grain numbers.”

The season’s last saltie left the Twin Ports just before Christmas to beat the Welland Canal closing Dec. 31. Laker traffic will continue all the way up to the close of the Soo Locks that link lakes Superior and Huron. The locks are a vital link in the supply chain between taconite iron ore mines and steel mills and are scheduled for more maintenance than usual this offseason.

“Folks will start seeing a few of those vessels coming in (to stay),” Yorde said. “There will be ships berthing at our new dock, one on either side, which will be fun for folks to see.”

Seven ships will berth locally for winter, and two others will be in port for longer layups, Yorde said.

Many of those vessels will be undergoing maintenance and other work.

“It’s a good 10 weeks of work for labor crews ... getting all those ships in ship-shape for the start of the season in late March,” Yorde said. “It sounds like there will be a lot of steel work over the winter.”

With the close of the 2016-17 shipping campaign looming, it’s worth a review of what was a season filled with intrigue:

— In March, scientists announced that the Great Lakes hadn’t seen a confirmed new aquatic invasive species in a full 10 years. If not proof, it stood as a strong indicator that the U.S. Coast Guard’s ballast-flushing program for incoming oceangoing salties has been working.

— In June, the CN freighter Roger Blough ran aground in the far eastern edge of Lake Superior in Whitefish Bay. An elaborate rescue to offload its cargo helped to release the freighter, which returned to work in short order and was visiting the Twin Ports again by August. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board have yet to release the conclusions of their investigations.   

— Also in June, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx visited northeast Minnesota for a round-table discussion on renewing aging infrastructure across all modes of transportation, including the ports.

— In July, a German shipping company whose vessel Cornelia was detained offshore from Duluth for six weeks in 2015 was slapped with $1 million in penalties after its owners pleaded guilty to dumping oily wastewater into the Great Lakes. The Cornelia, under new ownership, returned to Duluth in November to offload cement before it waited offshore several more weeks to secure an outgoing grain contract.

— August saw the start to a series of underwater discoveries, when local adventurers found the Canadian Pacific Railway Locomotive 694 that had plunged into a bouldery grave in Lake Superior 106 years ago. The wrecks of the vessels Antelope and J.S. Seaverns, which sunk 119 and 122 years ago, respectively, also were discovered.

— Also in August, the Norwegian Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre pulled out of the Tall Ships Duluth festival after it said it could not afford pilotage fees. Pilotage law requires a local navigator be aboard foreign vessels traveling through the Great Lakes. Multiple foreign ship owners also are suing the Coast Guard over what they claim are increased pilotage fees that equate to a monopoly among the various U.S. pilot groups.

— In September, the first freighter to be repowered in Duluth since at least the 1980s made its way onto Lake Superior for sea trials as the 57-year-old Herbert C. Jackson became the last of Interlake Steamship Co.’s vessels to be modernized with diesel power. The Jackson is now back to work, but the repowering was not without issues. Fraser Shipyards, the last remaining shipyard in the Port of Duluth-Superior, performed the repowering and has appealed nearly $1.4 million in fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for what it alleges was improper handling of lead and asbestos by Fraser aboard the Jackson. Previously, a welder had filed a lawsuit against Fraser in U.S. District Court in Madison, seeking damages in excess of $75,000 for what he claimed was exposure to toxic levels of lead while performing work at Fraser on the Jackson.

— In October, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken wrote Foxx asking for a study on maritime bottlenecks and barriers across the Great Lakes, surmising that the system remains underutilized.

— In November, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority wrapped up its two-year, nearly $18 million revitalization of Docks C and D in the Superior Bay across the slip from its existing Clure Public Marine Terminal. The 26 acres feature new steel dock walls, a new rail spur and a roll-on/roll-off dock that will be the first of its kind in Duluth. A grand opening is expected to be held in the spring.

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