Great Lakes harbors threatened by dredging backlog

Jul 5, 2011

The Great Lakes form a sprawling ecosystem of nature and industry.  In a strong economy, ships can transport up to 200 million tons of cargo across these waters each year.  But now the shipping industry has declared a state of emergency.  The cause is a region-wide dredging backlog.  Shippers worry sediment buildup threatens to choke some navigation channels.

But before we begin this tale of sediment and dredging and the government raiding crucial funds … let’s talk about … well … me

I’m between four and six feet tall.  Five foot four, to be exact. 

In one year, that’s how much sediment can build up in the mouths of harbors around the Great Lakes.  That’s when you call for a dredge.

“Basically it’s a vacuum that chews up the bottom of the sand,” said engineer Tom O’Bryan.  “Sucks up the sand with water.  And then we pipe that material 5,000 feet down the shoreline.”

O’Bryan is with the Army Corps of Engineers in Grand Haven, Michigan.  On one side of this dredge lies Lake Michigan.  On the other, the inner harbor and one of its shipping targets: the city’s coal-fired power plant.  The deeper this passage, the more coal each ship can carry without getting stuck.  O’Bryan feels that efficiency helps consumers like him.

“If I can get coal to that plant cheaper, then I’m going to get cheaper electricity to my house and therefore my bill’s gonna be less,” he said.

But because of the dredging backlog, between 15 and 18 million cubic yards of excess sediment have built up in Great Lakes navigation channels, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. 

That’s like pouring in a bag of mulch … 200 million times.  Add in low water levels and many ships have to light load, meaning carry less.  So costs go up. 

At the port in Marblehead, Ohio, a long conveyer belt rumbled steadily, carrying limestone from a quarry to one of Mark Barker’s ships below.  Barker is president ofThe Interlake Steamship Company

He’s also a man who measures revenue with a ruler.  For every inch of draft – that’s how deep a boat sits in the water –this 700 foot ship holds 110 tons of cargo.

“Our thousand-foot vessel, the largest vessel on the lakes, can lose over 250 tons per inch,” he said. 

Barker said “lose” because he’s loading between six and ten inches less than he did last year.  He said that could subtract millions of dollars from his bottom line. 

Glen Nekvasil is vice president of a trade group called the Lake Carriers’ Association.  He said early in the season, before a lot of snow melt, some ships left behind as much as 12,000 tons of iron ore or coal.

“That much iron ore will make the steel that’s used in 10,000 automobiles,” he said, “And that much coal will keep a couple big power plants going for thirteen hours.  So that’s the impact of light loading.”  

But light loading on the Great Lakes is already common.  Nekvasil said the outlook for next year makes it worse. 

Under President Obama’s budget proposal, only 11 of the 60 federal commercial harbors on the Great Lakes would get dredged next year.  That’s because of a proposed 30 percent funding reduction for the region.  Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers say if that stands, some commercial harbors could essentially close to big ships.  In other words, they could silt in too much to remain economical. Under the current proposal, no port with less than a million tons of annual cargo transport would get dredged next year. 

All this is happening despite the fact that billions of dollars have been collected over the years precisely for harbor maintenance and dredging.  Commercial shippers pay taxes on their cargo and that money goes into something called the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.  But that fund has been plundered by pirates … or in this case, the federal government. 

“They are raiding this fund,” said Representative Candice Miller. “They’re raiding it for other kinds of things.”

Miller is a Republican congresswoman from a Michigan district on Lake Huron.  She’s also co-sponsor of a bill that would require every penny of the fund be spent on harbor maintenance, instead of being used to reduce the federal deficit. 

“Think about your gasoline tax, those taxes go into the Highway Trust Fund,” Miller said.  “And that money can’t be siphoned off for anything other than highway projects.  We pay the tax, it fixes your roads.”

The idea of putting a firewall around the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.  As for shippers, they say remember the many thousands of jobs they support – in mining, in steel mills, in manufacturing and construction.  They say those jobs demand that Great Lakes shipping remains efficient.