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Ship traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway. (U.S. Department of Transportation photo)

LATE SURGE: St. Lawrence Seaway Racks Up Increased Tonnage

Coal to Europe, Iron Ore to China Boost Great Lakes Shipping

January 17, 2013       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Low sulfur coal headed for Europe and iron ore for China boosted the St. Lawrence Seaway traffic the past season.

Low water, especially on Lake Huron, has limited loads and tonnage this season.

Cason J. Callaway, 767-foot self-unloader, was the last vessel of the 2012/13 shipping season to pass through the Soo Locks on Wednesday Jan. 16. The Callaway is said to be the most advanced steam-powered ship on the lakes.

The Callaway, of the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet, operated by Key Lakes, Inc., is carrying taconite from Two Harbors, Minn. to Indiana Harbor. She is slated for winter lay-up at Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

The freighter Saginaw also went through the locks with grain from Thunder Bay for Owen Sound, Ont. Wilfred M. Cohen and barge 9000 were the last going upbound. The locks are scheduled to reopen midnight March 25.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) has announced that tonnage increased by 4 percent to 38.9 million tons during the 2012 navigation season, exceeding the SLSMCs original forecast by 300,000 tons, thanks in part to a late-season surge in grain movements.

Meanwhile, the Lake Carriers Association (LCA) reported shipments of limestone on the Great Lakes totaled 27,145,219 tons in 2012, a decrease of 3.6 percent compared to 2011.

The trade was 7 percent below its 5-year average.

Shipments from U.S. ports fell 2.4 percent when compared to 2011, and slightly more -- 4.1 percent -- when compared to their 5-year average. Loadings at Canadian quarries decreased 9 percent compared to 2011, and slipped almost 19 percent compared to their 5-year average.

Falling water levels and the dredging crisis took a toll in 2012. By year's end, a vessel that has carried as much as 35,457 tons in a single trip averaged only 29,796 tons on the three stone loads it moved in December. The cargoes were loaded at a quarry on Lake Huron and that body of water has fallen to a new record low.

The LCA also reported shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 61.6 million tons in 2012, a slight improvement over 2011. The increase, 245,000 tons, is equal to about four cargoes in a 1,000-foot-long vessel operating at current drafts, which are significantly reduced by the dredging crisis and falling water levels. If a vessel that size was able to load to depths available when the lakes were at near record highs in 1997, it could carry that much cargo in 3.4 trips.

Shipments from U.S. ports totaled 53.7 million tons, a decrease of 2.5 percent compared to 2011. Included in that total were 3.7 million tons transshipped to Quebec City for loading into oceangoing vessels.

Loadings at Canadian ports in the St. Lawrence Seaway totaled 7.9 million tons, an increase of 25.3 percent.

The first loads of 2013 make clear the dredging crisis and record low water levels will challenge the industry this year. The biggest cargoes were just slightly over 60,000 tons. The record for the iron ore trade through the Soo Locks is 72,300 tons, and that cargo dates from 1997, the last time water levels approached record highs. Strong performance within a number of core markets contributed to an overall gain of 1.4 million tons for the year, when compared to the Seaway's 2011 result of 37.5 million tons.

Demand for low sulfur coal in Europe led to a substantial increase in coal volumes, while busy Chinese steel mills triggered an upsurge in the demand for iron ore.

The shipments of coal and iron ore were brought to the Great Lakes and loaded on domestic lakers. The lakers then proceeded from the Great Lakes to the lower St. Lawrence River, where the commodities were trans-shipped to larger ocean vessels, for export to overseas destinations.

On the grain front, 2012 was a story of contrasts, as strong Canadian grain movements offset a sharp drop in U.S. grain movements, due to the drought that impacted the majority of the U.S. grain belt.

Terence Bowles, President and CEO of the SLSMC, emphasized the essential role that the Seaway plays within the North American transportation network. "The Seaway was instrumental in providing grain shippers with the means to rapidly respond and capitalize on market opportunities late in the season," said Bowles.

A number of newly built state-of-the art vessels came into service within the Seaway in 2012, boasting sharp increases in fuel efficiency and reductions in emission levels.

"These new vessels, part of a billion dollar fleet renewal effort by domestic and ocean carriers, combined with our marketing efforts which have recorded 10.6 million tonnes in new business over the past five years, underscore the Seaway's future potential," added Bowles.

The 2012 season also witnessed an important advance in navigational technology.

"The commissioning of the Draft Information System (DIS) further enhances vessel safety and efficiency," said Craig Middlebrook, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. "A vessel equipped with DIS can now precisely gauge the amount of water under the ship's keel, given satellite guided navigation combined with highly precise models of the channel floor."

The St. Lawrence Seaway closed for the season on December 29 with the westbound vessel John B. Aird transiting the Iroquois Lock at 8:59 p.m. The Aird then proceeded further west and served as the last vessel to transit the Seaway's Welland Canal, clearing Lock 8 at Port Colborne on December 31st at 4:23 a.m.

Some 227,000 jobs and $34 billion in economic activity are supported by the movement of goods within the Great Lakes / Seaway waterway. For more information on the Seaway, consult the website. ###

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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