By Ron Brochu
Coast Guard ice breakers led three cargo ships out of western Lake Superior Tuesday, March 25 with loads of taconite pellets destined for the U.S. Steel plant in Gary, Ind.
With maritime shipping shut down for more than three months, the Gary Works will replenish its taconite supply with pellets from Minntac Mine. The ships, which wintered in Duluth, were to be loaded at the CN dock in Two Harbors. Due to thick Lake Superior ice, they will travel convoy-style behind the ice breakers.
“It’s going to be really slow going,” said Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. To reach the Twin Ports, it took the icebreakers three days to make the 300-mile trip for an average of 4.2 miles per hour. A typical travel time is about one day.
Although steel mills and coal-fired electric plants stock up in preparation for the seasonal maritime shutdown, some vessels laid up early late last year because colder-than-normal temperatures created significant ice blockages, particularly in narrow channels such as the St. Marys River. The early shutdown, combined with the late season start, has left some companies in short supply.
They include Minnesota Power’s generating plant in Taconite Harbor. Sharrow said it is receiving 40 truckloads of coal daily. That’s expected to stop later this week when a shipload of coal arrives from the Midwest Energy Resources Terminal in Superior.
The St. Lawrence Seaway System won’t open until March 31, also later than usual, which will delay the start of international shipping through Duluth and Superior, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority board was told Monday, March 24. Because railroads are backed up with petroleum deliveries, a larger than usual amount of grain might be transported this year by truck, said Trade Development Director Ron Johnson.
Because grain is such a large industry in Canada, the federal government has the authority to force railroads to meet grain shipment quotas. Both CP and CN were given quotas on March 7 and could face fines of $100,000 per day if they are not met.
It’s not yet clear how the unstable political situation in Ukraine, a major grain supplier to Europe, will affect the Port of Duluth-Superior, Johnson said. A European Union boycott of Ukraine might fuel demand for U.S. grain, but it’s unpopular in some European countries where residents oppose American genetic modification practices.