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Undredged channels limit shipping on Great Lakes
16 April 2006

CLEVELAND (AP) - Shippers on the Great Lakes are decreasing their loads or taking detours because channel waters haven't been dredged.

From delivering salt up Michigan's Saginaw River to hauling iron ore to steel mills in Cleveland and East Chicago, Ind., the carriers say the lack of removing mud and sediment is limiting the strength of heavy industry on the lakes.

Shippers say the situation is getting worse as lake water levels decline and federal budget constraints are felt at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for dredging the nation's ports and waterways.

When a tug pushing a barge lost its rudders recently in the Saginaw River, it was another troubling sign for Jim Weakley and other shipping officials worried about inadequate dredging on the Great Lakes. The rudders snapped off in the river's turning basin -- an area that has not been dredged since the mid-1990s.

The river is so shallow that the cement carrier Alpena recently struggled against strong currents as it rode high in the water, trying to avoid hitting bottom, said Weakley, who heads the Lake Carriers Association, a shipowners group in Cleveland.

Some shipping firms say they no longer will send boats up the Saginaw because of the increased silting.

The shipping channel at the port of Green Bay, Wis., has narrowed in recent years to a third of its designated width, threatening the shipping of construction materials, coal, wood pulp and salt, while boats have been turned away at St. Joseph, Mich., because of the lower draft.

Because vessels have to carry lighter loads per trip, Weakley said, the industry estimates that 75 percent of the cargoes carried in U.S. lakers in the past five years were less than full loads.

Last year, the 1,000-foot long boats that loaded coal at Midwest Energy Resources Co.'s coal docks at Superior, Wis., could have loaded nearly 1.5 million more tons if the St. Mary's River -- the channel connecting Lake Superior with the lower lakes -- were dredged to its authorized depth, said Fred Shusterich, president of Midwest.

"We've been light loading for some years," said Dave Allen, a spokesman for Mittal Steel USA, which has steelmaking operations on the Indiana Harbor Canal in East Chicago.

"When you have reduced efficiency in a transportation system, it affects everything -- coal-burning power plants, the steel and construction industries -- everyone is going to pay a higher price," Weakley said.

Weakley's group is launching an effort to draw attention to the problem beginning with a breakfast meeting May 3 in Washington, hosted by the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, a coalition that promotes lakes shipping. Weakley's group said it would cost nearly $200 million to restore deep-draft ports and waterways to their designed depth.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledge the risks posed by silting in channels, but they say there's no easy solution. Bill Harder, a corps official in Cincinnati, said the corps' budget has not kept pace with inflation for many years.

"It's a constrained funding environment, and we're making very tough decisions," said Harder, who is navigation business manager for the corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River system division.

He said the corps is not mandated to keep channels at their authorized depths.

Corps officials said the corps' annual budget has not been affected much by the rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina or the war in Iraq because those events are funded mainly by supplemental appropriations.


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Information from: The Plain Dealer,
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