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Breaking the ice

Aug 12, 2015

Nobody is thinking about frozen lakes this time of year, but we will be soon enough. We’ve just had two of the harshest and coldest winters in decades.

Two years ago, at one point 93 percent of the Great Lakes’ surface was covered with ice.

Last year was almost as bad. The lakes are, as U.S. Sen. Gary Peters reminded me this week, a major American commercial highway, with freighters carrying billions of dollars worth of iron ore and other materials moving across their many hundreds of miles.

When winter is early and unexpectedly harsh, ships get caught in the ice. The U.S. Coast Guard has eight small ships that can be used as icebreakers in normal times, though most are old and need retrofitting. But there’s only one heavy Coast Guard icebreaker that can deal with winters like the last two: the nine-year-old Mackinaw, which can break up ice that’s as much as three and a half feet thick. But it can’t be in two places at once.

Last year, Great Lakes ice cost businesses more than $300 million, and that in turn cost nearly 2,000 jobs.

The year before, the losses were twice as bad. At least one new heavy icebreaker is needed. But Congress hasn’t been willing to come up with the money. In fact, most of the region’s delegation hasn’t been vocal about this, except for the political odd couple of U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a conservative Republican, and newly elected U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a progressive Democrat.

They’ve been fighting hard to get a second icebreaker, but so far, they’ve been frustrated. Miller did manage to get a clause approving it into the annual Coast Guard authorization bill – but her colleagues didn’t appropriate money for it.

Things then got worse in the Senate; they stripped the provision out entirely. Gary Peters then took up the fight. The Senate is now in recess until September, but he tells me he is still talking to his colleagues and trying to move the needle.

Part of the problem seems to be that some see this as a sectional issue, when in fact the Great Lakes are an integral part of national and even international commerce. However, Peters said part of the delay is due to the Coast Guard itself. It wants a new icebreaker for the Lakes – but its top priority is a new polar icebreaker for the Arctic.

The senator is cautiously optimistic, but he said they could use some more help from representatives and senators from the Great Lakes region. Miller and Peters, after all, are each operating under a handicap. She is essentially a lame duck, having announced she won’t run again next year. Peters is a brand-new freshman in the minority, and his clout is severely limited.

You would think both business and labor would be pressuring Congress for another Great Lakes icebreaker, but again, this issue has gotten little notice.

By the way, if Congress does come up with the $200 million needed, ordering an icebreaker isn’t like ordering a Chevy. It would take at least two to three years to build. If you can stand the pun, this is one priority we really can’t afford to put on ice.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.