Great Lakes spring: Soo Locks open for season

The following is the text of a news release from the American Great Lakes Ports Association:

(WASHINGTON) (March 25) — At 12:01 a.m. today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officially opened the Soo Locks for the start of the 2015 Great Lakes shipping season. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., are among 16 locks that form the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway navigation system which extends from Duluth, Minn., to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Together these 16 locks lift or lower ships 600 feet — the height of a 60-story building.

Since the Soo Locks closed in January, the Corps has been busy executing winter maintenance, repair and rehabilitation projects. In total, the agency spent $9.5 million on various projects to enhance the reliability of the Poe and MacArthur Locks. These projects included steel repair on Gate No. 3 of the Poe Lock; filling/emptying valve repair on the Poe Lock; replacement of the pintal bearing on Gate No. 1 of the Poe Lock; rehabilitation of the MacArthur Lock’s electrical system; upgrading the compressed air distribution system that assists with ice control at both locks; and miscellaneous small maintenance projects. These improvements ensure the safety of the vessels and crews who will transit the locks over the next nine months.

The location of the Soo Locks provides a critical infrastructure link for shipowners and ports on both sides of the border. As a gateway for commerce, the locks allow for the movement of essential raw materials such as iron ore, coal, limestone, grain, salt, and cement to transit from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes. Around 80 million tons of cargo pass through the locks each year. Iron ore is the largest commodity and is used primarily in the steel and automobile industries. Coal is a close second and is used to power electrical plants in the lower Great Lakes.

Mark Barker, president of The Interlake Steamship Company, said, “We’re looking forward to the new shipping season. Coming off the second consecutive year of heavy ice on the lakes, our vessel, the Mesabi Miner, finally left the Port of Duluth-Superior late Monday evening after loading coal at the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal.” Interlake’s nine self-unloading ships annually move approximately 20 million tons of bulk cargo each year consisting of iron ore, coal, limestone and grain.

“While the ice isn’t as bad as last year, it is still challenging,” said Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority. As the largest grain export port on the lakes, the Soo Locks are essential to Thunder Bay since 100 percent of their trade moves through the locks down to the Welland Canal and out through the Seaway. “The majority of our grain leaves the port on lakers for transloading onto ocean vessels in Quebec destined for customers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. We also load ocean vessels for direct export,” added Heney. 

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, stated, “After a long winter, our ports, terminals, and longshoremen are eager to get busy moving commerce. Due to the strength of the U.S. dollar, we expect to see a strong shipping season with a growth in cargo volumes — particularly with regard to import cargo such as steel.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway is scheduled to open on Thursday, April 2.

By Professional Mariner Staff