March 11, 2016
By Lynn D. Tucker Jr. and Chris Ventura
Cleveland, Ohio – For decades, policymakers, legislators, shippers, and businesses have stressed the importance of building a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, a critical choke point in the Great Lakes Navigation System for vessels transporting iron ore, coal, grain, and other commodities. The locks allow cargo ships to move from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes.
Yet public awareness of this aging piece of infrastructure is low because the two remaining locks have been able to operate without unscheduled outages or other issues – until last summer.
On July 29, the MacArthur lock was taken out of commission for nearly three weeks to undergo emergency maintenance.
This closure forced ships to be rerouted through the only other lock in operation, the larger-sized Poe. Deemed a "major headache" for Great Lakes shipping companies, 103 ships were delayed a combined 166 hours while repairs were underway by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Nearly 1.9 million tons of cargo was overdue, causing untold losses in economic activity throughout the region.
The Army Corps lock analysis neglected to account for the dumping of cheap, low-quality foreign steel.
The Lake Carriers' Association estimates that three-quarters of all integrated steel production could cease within two to six weeks, idling auto, heavy equipment, and appliance manufacturing. In addition, the electricity millions of families and businesses rely on would be affected through the halting of the shipment of coal from the Powder River Basin and mines throughout Appalachia to power plants across the country. Such an event would add to electricity scarcity, boost prices and impact the budgets of hundreds of thousands of energy consumers nationwide.
Twenty years ago, Congress authorized the Army Corps to build a second Poe-sized lock, but this project has been stymied by an inaccurate economic benefit analysis by the Corps. Their analysis made unrealistic assumptions about the capacity of our road and rail systems to handle and deliver the immense tonnage of cargo which passes through the locks. Many steel mills, like ArcelorMittal in Cleveland, can only receive iron ore by ship. In addition, the Army Corps neglected to account for the dumping of cheap, low-quality foreign steel, which artificially depressed domestic steel production.
Fortunately, Ohio legislators like state Rep. Mike Dovilla and U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown have stepped up to fight for Ohio's manufacturing workforce. These legislators, and their peers in Michigan, have begun to apply pressure on the Obama administration and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to expedite an economic re-evaluation of the Soo Locks. And now, it's time for the public to speak out as well.
*** Lynn D. Tucker Jr. is general vice president for eastern territory of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Chris Ventura is executive director of the Consumer Energy Alliance – Midwest, a trade organization focused on the nation's energy future.