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Arctic air anchors frozen freighters to bring Minn. shipping industry to a crawl

Five ships wait at anchor in the ice and fog on Lake Superior Monday afternoon. Bob King / Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn.—Bursting with horsepower to spare in what has been a banner season, the Great Lakes shipping industry slowed against its will in the past week.

On Lake Superior offshore from Duluth, as many as nine freighters at a time have been anchored and at ease the past several days — mostly waiting turns to load iron ore pellets in the Twin Ports and Two Harbors.

A rush to haul an estimated 1.5 million tons of iron ore pellets out of northern Minnesota in the last half-month of the shipping season stalled when arctic air enveloped the Midwest, sources said.

"There's no way that is going to happen now," said Jim Sharrow, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's director of port planning and resiliency.

The gears of industry shuddered against the cold, causing dysfunction up and down the supply chain. There are any number of culprits behind the slow loading taking place right now in the Duluth-Superior harbor, Sharrow said, but all of it is traced to the bitter cold.

"The operators and coast guards and all the service organizations that help to keep ships moving are all very well organized to deal as well as they can with things," Sharrow said, "but they can't make it summer sailing."

Frozen train brakes impede departures at the mines; thousands of feet of elevated conveyors in Superior stiffen up in subzero temperatures; clumps of iron ore pellets bond with ice and cold and no longer move freely; and rows of hatches on lake freighters become welded shut by a foot of ice or more during bitter-cold voyages.

"The dock managers would know, but we don't call and ask what the problem of the day is," Sharrow said. "The operators are meeting (Tuesday) to reshuffle their vessels after several days of getting held up for one reason or another."

The busiest dock, BNSF Railway Dock 5 in east Superior, has had as many as seven vessels waiting at a time.

"We're working to load boats and move them out in the push before the end of the shipping season," BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in an email response. "This cold weather can impact equipment and our operations. Our employees prepare for that every winter and work through issues as they come up, often in extreme weather conditions. We'll continue working to load vessels ahead of the season closing."

The BNSF dock's iron ore pellet cargoes are generally bound for mills outside Chicago or along the south shore of Lake Erie, Sharrow said.

Had ships been able to move freely in and out of the Twin Ports, most vessels likely would have made one or even two more trips this season before the close of the Soo Locks on Jan. 15 — a move which shuts off Lake Superior from the rest of the lakes for about six weeks of offseason. About 20 cargoes had been planned to leave this month from the Twin Ports and Two Harbors combined, Sharrow said.

Operators had been building stockpiles of iron ore pellets at the nation's steel mills to keep the mills producing through winter. The industry learned during the abnormally cold spring ice-out of 2014, which lasted into June, how expensive and limited rail shipments of iron ore pellets can be to the mills.

But operators are now considering adjustments to vessel schedules which seem likely to make multiple trips per ship unrealistic.

"It's possible a large percentage will have to forgo that and move the cargo in the spring," Sharrow said.

The slowdown is also being brought on by the rapid accumulation of ice, especially in the narrower rivers and locks connecting the lakes and the working harbors all along the shores.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory on Tuesday, the lakes were almost 20 percent ice-covered — but each lake to varying degrees. The shallowest, Lake Erie, was 40 percent covered, while Lake Superior, the deepest, was only 8 percent covered. Because passage though its waters was less impeded, Lake Superior was soaking up only one of the nine binational coast guard icebreakers currently working alongside an armada of tugboats to keep open channels and harbors throughout the lakes.

"I compare ice-breaking to plowing the roads," Sharrow said.

"Bridged" while waiting to reach Park Point on Tuesday before noon, a row of vehicles lined up to let the freighter Thunder Bay pass.

Her nose a menacing icecap, the 740-foot Canadian freighter moved beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge to the familiar sound of horns followed by laps of water against the hull. She was to discharge salt at Hallett Dock No. 8 in St. Louis Bay, then get in line for Two Harbors and a downbound load of iron ore pellets.

A Thunder Bay crewmember worked on the aft deck underneath the bridge and wore heavy gloves as he punched a portable keypad.

A question was shouted from alongside the ship canal: "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," said the man with a stiff comb mustache who wore a hard hat over a cap covering his ears. "It's a bit nippy."

The Thunder Bay drifted by and seemed lucky to do so. It had broken away from the other patient freighters — some having been anchored for days.

Sharrow ticked through added notes which figured to tickle maritime enthusiasts:

• The last saltie to leave Duluth, the Beatrix on Dec. 19, was bound for the United Kingdom with a load of spring wheat and originally ticketed to hit the Atlantic Ocean by Christmas. Instead, it's among six ocean-going foreign vessels still caught in the St. Lawrence Seaway System near Montreal. "They're working with them to get them out, but there's a lot of ice in the St. Lawrence River and it's taking a while," Sharrow said.

• The entire system absorbed a hit when the U.S. Coast Guard pulled an ice-breaking buoy tender, the cutter Hollyhock, from its seven-vessel rotation. The Hollyhock is a sister vessel to the Duluth-based Alder and is home-ported out of Port Huron, Mich. But an engine, extended by repairs previously, finally came due to be overhauled and forced the Coast Guard to pull her in despite appeals from lake carriers, Sharrow said. The Canadian Coast Guard also helps with ice-breaking on the lakes.

• The freighter G3 Marquis left Two Harbors loaded with iron ore pellets on Tuesday only to come back to anchor in Duluth to wait out a gale warning on Lake Superior. Like the Thunder Bay, the G3 Marquis is among the next generation of efficient Canadian lakers and a 740-footer. Conversely, the 1,000-foot Burns Harbor left Duluth with a load of iron ore pellets on Tuesday in spite of the weather.

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