TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Last winter’s deep freeze that slowed Great Lakes shipping to a crawl caused $705 million in economic losses and highlighted the need to bolster the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet, a trade association said Tuesday.
The prolonged cold produced the thickest and most expansive ice cover on the lakes in 35 years. By early March, about 92 percent of their surface was solid. Coast Guard crews toiled more than five months breaking ice to keep shipping lanes open, finally calling a halt in mid-May.
Despite their efforts, the volume of freight hauled on the lakes by U.S.-flagged vessels between Dec. 1, 2013, and May 30, 2014, was nearly 7 million tons lower than during the same period a year earlier, according to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers’ Association.
Industries such as steel, power generation and construction depend on year-round delivery of cargo, said Jim Weakley, the association’s president. The Great Lakes shipping fleet’s 56 vessels transport bulk materials such as iron ore, cement, coal, salt, sand and grain.
At least two steelmakers cut production last winter and some power plants ran low on coal because of the slowdown, Weakley said.
“Steel that had been ordered was not made, which means either some products were not produced or made with foreign steel,” he said. “Worst yet, some North American products were outright replaced with imports.”
Martin Associates, a transportation economics analysis firm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, calculated lost business revenue at $705 million and estimated that 3,800 jobs were lost, he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard deployed nine vessels with icebreaking capabilities and received assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard. The Lake Carriers’ Association praised the crews’ efforts but said it would ask Congress to fund construction of an icebreaking cutter similar to the Mackinaw, which is larger and more powerful than the fleet’s other craft.
“We have to face the fact that we need two heavy icebreakers on the Great Lakes,” spokesman Glen Nekvasil said.
But the Coast Guard doesn’t believe another Mackinaw-type ship is needed, especially as most of its other icebreakers are being upgraded, said Lt. Davey Connor, spokesman for the agency’s district office in Cleveland.
Last winter was “kind of a 30-year exception to the norm,” he said. “If we had a fleet prepared to deal flawlessly with the worst-case scenario, then for 29 of the other 30 years we’d have too much. We feel that’s not the best stewardship of taxpayer money and Coast Guard resources.”
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican and chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said she joined a Coast Guard crew on an icebreaking mission last year.
“I certainly understand why Great Lake shippers want more icebreakers and think that it is a request worth looking into and discussing with the U.S. Coast Guard,” she said.
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