House and Senate Bills Offer Hope for Lakes Dredging Crisis.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have taken up legislation that could end the dredging crisis on the Great Lakes. H.R. 335 and S. 218 would require the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (“HMTF”) to spend what it takes in each year for dredging on dredging. Currently, the HMTF spends only one of every two tax dollars it collects for dredging on dredging. The surplus, now approaching $7 billion, is used to mask the size of the Federal deficit rather than maintain the nation’s ports and waterways. As a result, 17 million cubic yards of sediment clog Lakes harbors and have the largest vessels losing more than 10,000 tons of cargo in just one trip.
H.R. 335, the Realize America’s Maritime Promise (“RAMP”) Act, was introduced on January 22 and currently has 67 co-sponsors, 15 of whom are from the Great Lakes region. S. 218, the Harbor Maintenance Act of 2013, was introduced on February 4. The bill was authored by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and has 28 co-sponsors, 10 of whom are from Great Lakes states.
“Congress must quickly pass these bills,” said Donald N. Cree, President of Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, the largest labor/management coalition ever to promote waterborne commerce on the nation’s Fourth Sea Coast. “The largest U.S.-flag Great Lakes freighters were leaving behind more than 10,000 tons of cargo each trip by the end of 2012. The dredging crisis is obliterating the efficiencies of Great Lakes shipping,” declared Cree, who is also Great Lakes Special Assistant to the National President for American Maritime Officers.
The decades-old dredging crisis has been compounded by the drought that has sent the water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron plunging to record lows and reduced drafts throughout the system. “Initial forecasts suggest that vessels will have to load to less than 25 feet when transiting the St. Marys River this spring,” said John D. Baker, 2nd Vice President of GLMTF and President Emeritus of the ILA’s Great Lakes District Council. “If that proves to be the case, oceangoing vessels loading export grain could leave almost 2,000 tons of cargo behind when they depart Lake Superior terminals.”
“Plunging water levels are beyond anyone’s control, but the dredging crisis is man-made,” stressed James H.I. Weakley, 1st Vice President of GLMTF and President of Lake Carriers’ Association. “In this century the Corps has received enough money to reduce the backlog of sediment in the Lakes in only two years: 2008 and 2009. The backlog actually shrank from 18 to 15 million cubic yards during that time. But the budget has been woefully inadequate in the years that have followed and the backlog again tops 17 million cubic yards.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it needs $200 million to restore the Great Lakes Navigation System to project dimensions. “$200 million is only 2 percent of the HMTF’s surplus,” said Thomas Curelli, 3rd Vice President of GLMTF and Director of Operations for Fraser Shipyards, Inc. “Year after year the government taxes cargo to pay for dredging. An adequately funded dredging program is long overdue.”
A more equitable distribution of HMTF receipts is also long overdue. In some years, an inland river’s allocation is twice that of the Lakes per dollar of transportation savings generated.
Shipping on the nation’s Fourth Sea Coast plays a vital role in the region’s and nation’s economic well-being. Cargo movement can top 200 million tons in a boom economy. The primary commodities are iron ore, coal and limestone carried by U.S. and Canadian “lakers.” Oceangoing vessels, referred to as “salties,” arrive with specialty steels and other manufactured goods and depart with Midwest grain.
A recent study determined shipping on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System creates and sustains nearly 227,000 jobs in the U.S. and Canada with an annual business revenue of $35 billion. Great Lakes shipping also supports more than 400,000 U.S. export jobs.
Founded in 1992, Great Lakes Maritime Task Force promotes domestic and international shipping on the Great Lakes. With 87 members, it is the largest coalition to ever speak for the Great Lakes shipping community and draws its membership from both labor and management representing U.S.-flag vessel operators, shipboard and longshore unions, port authorities, cargo shippers, terminal operators, shipyards, and other Great Lakes interests. Its other goals include construction of a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; protecting the Jones Act and other U.S. maritime cabotage laws and regulations; maximizing the Lakes overseas trade via the St. Lawrence Seaway; and opposing exports and/or increased diversions of Great Lakes water.