“It was a critical step that had to happen,” said James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done between now and having a contract signed to build a new icebreaker.”
On Wednesday, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced that with strong bipartisan support on the Senate Commerce Committee she had secured authorization for $10 million toward the “scope and design” of a heavy icebreaker for the Great Lakes.
Approval of Baldwin’s amendment as part of 2020 Coast Guard Reauthorization legislation now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
“In the Great Lakes, inadequate ice-breaking capacity is costing us thousands of American jobs and millions in U.S. revenue,” Baldwin said in a news release. “We need to take action with an additional Coast Guard icebreaker to protect our Great Lakes.”
Weakley was in Washington, D.C., where he spends time advocating on behalf of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers. He outlined the process going forward. If approved and signed into law, the Coast Guard would need to utilize the $10 million to “stand up an acquisition program,” which would develop a need analysis and vessel design that Congress would review in order to then appropriate building costs, estimated between $200 million and $250 million, Weakley said.
Weakley and the Lake Carriers, made up of 16 American companies operating U.S.-flag vessels, including the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet, have seen this movie before. Congress approved funding in 2015 with then-Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, helping to lead a charge which ultimately authorized the same $10 million only to watch the funding later expire and go unused by the Coast Guard.
That was following back-to-back winters of historic ice coverage which had reversed a 15-year trend of diminishing ice on the Great Lakes. Epic ice coverage during those winters from 2013-15 set back the shipping industry in both campaigns. The industry struggled again to emerge from winter layup in 2019.
The Great Lakes Fleet didn’t come out of layup until April 5, more than 10 days after the opening of the Soo Locks on the eastern end of Lake Superior. The News Tribune reported at the time that Great Lakes Fleet was wary of banging up ore boats during a congested period still blanketed in ice. Interlake Steamship Co., based outside of Cleveland, punctured holes in two lake freighters in the early going this season, Lake Carriers official Thomas Rayburn told the News Tribune.
“There are a lot of impacts that arise from the ice season if we’re not able to move as soon as the locks open,” Rayburn said.
According to Baldwin’s release, vessel delays caused by the 2019 ice season resulted in the loss of man-hours equivalent to 5,421 jobs.
“Businesses that depend upon the region’s maritime industry lost over $1 billion in revenues because of delays caused by inadequate ice-breaking,” Baldwin said. “Due to the lost business revenue, the federal government lost over $125 million in taxes in addition to the $46 million lost by state and local governments.”
The Lake Carriers support the data. Weakley said the equivalent of 4 million tons of taconite iron ore pellets were delayed to this season's slow start.
“The billion-dollar figure is the impact on the U.S. economy,” Weakley said. “It’s the steel that wasn’t made, the cars that weren’t made, all the heavy equipment that wasn’t made.”
Because the Duluth-based Coast Guard Cutter Alder was undergoing an extended-period of engine maintenance outside of its regular home on Lake Superior, the lake didn’t even have an ice-breaking asset until after the Soo Locks opened March 25, Rayburn said.
Of the nine U.S. ice-breaking cutters on the Great Lakes, only one, the Mackinaw, is a full-fledged “heavy icebreaker.” The others are smaller — buoy tenders, like the Alder, and bay class vessels — but have ice-breaking capabilities.
It’s important to note that Canada also has two ice-breaking vessels on the Great Lakes.
The Lake Carriers have been lobbying for another heavy icebreaker for years. When it was launched early this century, the second generation Mackinaw had originally figured to have been one in a pair of twin vessels. The second never came to pass, and it’s been problematic at times ever since, Weakley explained.
Even the Mackinaw can be stretched. With a 58-foot beam, its side-to-side track pales in comparison to, say, one of the 1,000-foot vessels belonging to the Great Lakes Fleet, which doesn’t own a lake freighter with a beam less than 68 feet while its thousand-foot vessels all go more than 100 feet wide.
Side by side with another, Mackinaw would clear a better track.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Weakley said of Wednesday's development. “It puts additional pressure on the Coast Guard to take it to the next step and deliver on building an icebreaker at least as capable as the Mackinaw.”