'Horrendous' Winter a Challenge for Coast Guard Icebreakers

Thursday, March 08, 2001
The 2000 Great Lakes shipping season ended on Feb. 8, when the Canadian Transport loaded 29,000 tons of coal at the Pittsburgh & Conneaut dock in Conneaut, Ohio. The cargo was then delivered to Ontario Hydro's power plant in Naticoke, Ontario.

"Ice conditions were horrendous from early December on," said George J.Ryan, president of Lake Carriers' Association, the trade association representing the major U.S.-Flag Lakes lines.

"At times, the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers and western Lake Erie basin were clogged with brash ice going down 15 ft. Even the high-powered, ice strengthened lakers that operate at the beginning and end of the season could not have proceeded without the icebreaking assistance provided by the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards. We and our customers, the region's steel mills and power plants, are indebted to the two Coast Guards, for without their assistance, stockpiles of iron ore and coal would be insufficient to meet the needs of commerce until the Lakes reopen in early March."

Equally important, Ryan noted the harsh winter means it will not be easy to resume navigation in early March. "Once shipping ceases, the ices fields strengthen, so both Coast Guards will have their hands full when the dry-bulk trades resume early next month."

Ironically, the 2000 navigation began early because the mild winter of 1999/2000. "The 2000 shipping season for dry bulk cargoes started n February 7 when the cement carrier Southdown Conquest began operations," Ryan explained. "The Lake Erie coal trade resumed in earnest on March 3. That is certainly the earliest start-up in many, many years."

Nature was not so accommodating at the end of the season. Much colder temperatures thought the Great Lakes basin produced significant ice formations. However, because of the importance of Great Lakes shipping, both the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards maintain extensive icebreaking assets and so-called " extended season" iron ore cargoes (cargoes loaded after Dec. 15) totaled 4.3 million net tons. Coal loadings at lake Erie ports between Jan. 1 and Feb. 7 topped 1.4 million net tons.

Looking forward to the 2001 season, Ryan stressed that skyrocketing natural gas prices will continue to drive demand for Lake Erie coal. "We've every expectation that coal will start moving in early March. The iron ore trade traditionally resumes out of Escanaba, Michigan, in the second week of March, so within a month or so, a good number of U.S. and Canadian lakers will be back in service."

Ryan expressed concern about the availability of Coast Guard icebreaking assets when shipping starts up again next month. "The U.S. Coast Guard is dealing with aging infrastructure when it comes to its icebreaking assets. The cutter Mackinaw, the largest icebreaker stationed on the Great Lakes, was built in 1944 and had one engine out this entire ice season. Also, one of the 140-ft. long icebreaking buoytenders experienced a long downtime due to mechanical failures, and a sistership was out of service for a lesser period of time. Only the skill and dedication of Coast Guard crews enabled them to overcome these obstacles. We are advised that all assets will be ready in March, but we can only hope these aging rooms can continue to operate in heavy ice conditions."

Also adding to the Coast Guard's burden is the early opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway is scheduled to open on March 23 and the low-powered saltwater vessels will need assistance. "Canada should assign additional icebreaking assets from other regions to meet the needs of the deep sea trades," Ryan counseled. "Otherwise, there may be delays in deliveries of iron ore and coal to American steel mills and power plants. The U.S. Coast Guard has no other assets it can deploy on the Lakes."

Ryan expressed hope that contracting for a heavy icebreaker to replace the aging Mackinaw will proceed on scheduled. "Funds have been approved and authorized to built a multi-purpose vessel with heavy icebreaking capabilities. The contract should be awarded prior to September 2001. The Great Lakes icebreaking Buoytender (GLIB) should be in service by 2006 at the latest, but Congress must keep this project on track."

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