According to the Duluth News Tribune, the motor vessel Roger Blough is back up and running in Lake Superior, and chugged into the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN and Superior, WI for a load of iron ore pellets. The Blough ran aground on May 27 just outside of Sault Ste Marie, near the Gros Cap Reefs. The U.S. Coast Guard was on hand to aid a rescue mission which involved offloading the Blough’s cargo onto two other lake freighters.
After almost two months of repairs in Sturgeon Bay, WI, the Blough left Bay Shipbuilding on August 6 and made its way to Duluth, arriving August 8. It picked up its cargo at the CN docks yesterday and departed last night. According to Marine Traffic, it’s headed east and bearing down on the Soo Locks, close to the site of its grounding.
Investigations are still being conducted on the cause of the grounding, both external (U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board) and internal (Keystone Shipping Co., the ship operator).
Last week’s closure of the Port of Churchill (Manitoba) came as a surprise to its workers, among them the town mayor. Mayor Mike Spence confirmed with CBC that about 50 employees were handed layoff notices and another 40 or 50 were waiting to receive similar news via telephone.
“It came out of nowhere,” Spence told CBC. “The community, the employees are devastated by this all. We’re going to have to work at this and rectify this matter… hoping we can reverse this.” Spence also told CBC that he’s contacting provincial and federal governments to ask for intervention.
The port is a major employer in Churchill; it is run by OmniTrax, a Denver-based company. OmniTrax has been trying to sell the port for some time. CBC also interviewed Elden Boon, president of the Hudson Bay Route Association. The association is an advocacy group for the Port of Churchill. He stated the layoffs were sudden to him too, saying that officials from OmniTrax told him there wouldn’t be any more grain shipments going through the port this year, but never indicated there would be layoffs. Boon said this season would mark the first that the port has been shut down since World War II.
As the Port of Churchill shuts down its operations, it’s expected that the shipping business will shift to Port of Thunder Bay. CBC spoke with Tim Heney, CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority, who stated that its operations would be marginally affected by the closure.
“The two ports, of course, both do grain, primarily,” Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority said. “Churchill’s much smaller in size. Their historic average shipments were about 500,000 tonnes, whereas Thunder Bay, in the last couple years, is running between eight and nine millions tonnes.”
Henry contextualized 500,000 tonnes as “about 10 days’ shipment” for Thunder Bay.
Henry speculated that the Churchill port was closed in part due to elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board. The CWB used to be in charge of grain transportation in Canada, but is since defunct. Private companies now handle the shipping of their own product, now mostly done through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Heney states that this is fortunate news for Thunder Bay and parts of Quebec, but that he empathizes with those who’ve lost their jobs in Churchill.
The U.S. Coast Guard has not yet officially responded to a lawsuit filed jointly by the Great Lakes Ports Association, U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, and international shipping firms over increased pilotage rates. However, the pilots’ associations have stepped forward in favour Coast Guard’s decision to demand the raise, issuing a statement to articulate their support.
The Coast Guard proposed the hikes as a safety measure, to relieve fatigued coworkers, an issue which they say has caused pilot shortages and traffic delays. The shipping industry interests believe that the rate hikes will cripple “the competitive position of the Great Lakes Seaway navigation system,” saying that increased costs to vessel owners will result in job losses for the industry.
In response, the presidents of the Lakes Pilots, Western Great Lakes Pilots, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots Associations issued a joint statement which echoed the Coast Guard’s insistence on safety. They stated they were “extremely disappointed” with the lawsuit coalition and their choice to save money instead of adhering to safety and environmental protection.
Yesterday, it was reported that the pilot associations moved to join the lawsuit, even though they were not initially involved. The suit is against the Coast Guard, but they believe the pilots “have a direct and substantial interest in this case that cannot be adequately represented by any other party.”
The pilots have been careful to note that while they would be supporting the Coast Guard’s position in the lawsuit, the two groups have a history, both in court and out, of disagreement over piloting regulations.
A judge has yet to rule on the pilots’ motion.
Two major headlines from Great Lakes and Superior shipping this week:
Dredging to begin in Duluth, MN – Superior, WI harbour
On July 7, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced via press release that their contractors would begin dredging portions of the Duluth-Superior Harbour this month. Dredging is excavation work typically done to gather bottom sediments and dispose of them in another location.The dredging is expected to last from July to mid-November of this year.
The Corps stated that the dredging is to be done to clear a federal navigation channel an keep it clear for commercial shipping traffic. The dredged material will be placed in two different locations (Interstate Island and 21st Avenue Embayment) per a habitat restoration design by the St. Louis River Area of Concern Remedial Action Plan (RAP).
Regarding the operation, the Corps conclude that: “placement of the dredge material will create optimal water depths and flows to promote the growth of aquatic vegetation in support of a healthy benthic community and robust fishery.”
The dredging work will be carried out by two firms: Marine Tech of Duluth, MN ($1.4 mil contract) and Roen Salvage of Sturgeon Bay, WI ($1.25 mil contract).
Shipping companies suing U.S. Coast Guard over rate hike
After the U.S. Coast Guard increased ship pilot rates on the Great Lakes, foreign and domestic shipping companies are filing a lawsuit against them over the rate hike.
U.S. Coast Guard public affairs officer Katie Braynard told Wisconsin Public Radio that the rate increase was introduced to add more pilots and reduce safety risks due to fatigue. She also stated that the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the measures.
There are currently 37 ship pilots on the Great Lakes, and the Coast Guard is aiming to gain another 17 pilots [it wasn’t specified if the 37 were Americans only, or Americans and Canadians]. Western Great Lakes Pilots Association President John Swartout believes rate increases were necessary to provide adequate training and compensation for the pilots. However, the companies believe they have been exploited by pilotage fees which have increased substantially in the last decade.
The lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard reads:
“Much of this increase has occurred in the last two navigation seasons. In comments submitted to the Coast Guard docket that led to the Final Rule, the Shipping Federation of Canada, a Plaintiff herein, observed that pilotage is now one of the largest single cost items for foreign-flag vessels that enter the St. Lawrence Seaway/Great Lakes System.”
In response, Swartout pointed out that “Great Lakes had the highest work load and among the lowest pay of any pilots in the country.We couldn’t keep people and we couldn’t attract people.”
He told WPR that [American] ship pilots work about 90 days without a scheduled day off, and get paid an average of $140 000 per year to guide ships safely into Great Lakes ports. The U.S. Coast Guard has set targets for pilots to receive more than double that amount each year, which would make compensation competitive with what Canadian ship pilots earn.
The lawsuit aims to stop the rate increase, and are requesting the agency drop this year’s rates by 20%.
German ship operating company MST Mineralien Schiffahrt plead guilty yesterday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to environmental violations. The company was charged with discharging oily wastewater in the Great Lakes from Liberian-flagged MV Cornelia, and then covering up the illegal act in the ship’s documentation.
On at least ten occasions between February to October 2015, crew members on the Cornelia dumped oil-contaminated waste water overboard while on route to Duluth, MN to pick up loads of grain destined for Africa. At least one of those discharges occurred in the Great Lakes.
Minnesota Public Radio News reported that MST is fined a total of $1 million – an $800 000 fine to the United States, and a $200 000 community service payment to help preserve the watershed of Lake Superior. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended that the community service payment should be awarded to St. Paul-based nonprofit Minnesota Environmental Fund. MST was also sentenced to serve three years probation.
The Cornelia, a saltie, was detained outside the Duluth Harbour last year for over a month so that the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency could investigate. It was released on Dec. 18 so that it could exit the Great Lakes at the Soo Locks before the canals closed for winter.
The overwhelming popularity of Lake Superior’s attractions are reportedly providing a challenge for small lakeshore communities in Michigan and Minnesota.
Increasing numbers of tourists are flocking particularly to Munising, Michigan, to see the Pictured Rocks, a sandstone rockface towering above turquoise waters. Roughly 723 000 people visited Munising’s Alger County in 2015 on their way to see the rocks, sinking $30.6 million into the economies of surrounding cities and towns. This figure is a staggering increase from 561,100 visitors in region in 2011.
However, the Associated Press (Marquette, MI) reported that tourist influx in small coastal communities such as Grand Marais, MN and Munising on their way to the lakeshore has created shortage in hotel rooms, camping sites, and local restaurants. In addition, local officials noted traffic, transportation, and parking concerns.
While tourism economy is welcomed along Lake Superior’s shore, communities are struggling to keep up with ever-increasing demand. Munising officials, members of the National Park Service, and other organizations in Alger County created five groups to address tourism issues. The five groups cover seasonal employment and business opportunities, seasonal housing, public infrastructure, quality of life, and park congestion.
One of the biggest challenges is where to house tourists during peak seasons. Munising mayor Rod DesJardins told AP that “we still have a significant shortage in rental properties for all income ranges as well as a critical shortage in seasonal rentals and vacation rentals,” DesJardins said. Kathy Reynolds, executive director of the Alger County Chamber of Commerce confirmed that rental and hotel occupancy often sees 100 percent occupancy.
Increased visitation to Pictured Rocks also invites increased safety concern as tourists kayak, hike, and bike to see the destination. AP reported that Laura Rotegard, the superintendent of Pictured Rocks, oversees a committee working on a video and handout to increase awareness around safety for boating and kayaking in Lake Superior.
Photo credit: By Trizicus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12073661
On June 15, leaders from Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec) and U.S. states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) in the Great Lakes Basin revealed a $3.8 billion dollar plan intended to improve regional maritime infrastructure and boost trade.
Recently, the leaders of these provinces and states formed the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers. They conceived the plan to leverage maritime transport as an economic engine driving job creation. The Great Lakes economy is one of the largest economic forces in North America, totalling $5.8 billion in revenue in 2015. BMO economists stated in April that if it were its own country, the Great Lakes basin would have the third largest economy in the world.
The ten-year maritime strategy was created to improve aging infrastructure in waterways, increase dredging and ice-breaking operations, and reduce other barriers hindering the growth of Great Lakes shipping industry. According to a press release by the Ontario government, “the strategy’s objectives are to double maritime trade, shrink the environmental footprint of the region’s transportation network, and support the region’s industrial core.”
Its major recommendations include:
- Constructing a second “Poe Class” Lock in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
- Fully funding the asset renewal program of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation
- Clearing the $200 million federal harbor dredging backlog at U.S. Great Lakes ports
- Dredging the St. Marys River – a critical choke point – to its authorized depth of 27 feet
- Appropriating $250 million in federal funds to repair breakwalls and other critical nearshore infrastructure
- Adding more Great Lakes icebreakers to the U.S. and Canadian fleets
- Developing recommendations for an agreement between the U.S. and Canada to cooperatively manage the regional maritime system
- Streamlining the U.S.-Canada customs clearance process for cruise passengers and maritime cargo.
- Tapping veterans to boost the region’s maritime workforce by removing barriers to entry for ex-servicemembers under “Military to Maritime” programs.
“Improving maritime transportation is critical to our economies — in order to remain competitive in today’s global markets, we need to improve and expand the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence maritime transportation system,” said Ontario Premier and Co-Chair of the Regional Maritime Entity Kathleen Wynne. “Our new strategy will help guide the sustainable development of maritime trade to ensure that future generations can enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of the region.”
The MV Roger Blough has been relieved of its cargo and was cleared over the weekend to head for repairs in Sturgeon Bay, WI. The Blough ran aground on May 27th on the Gros Cap Reef in Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. Since being freed of its cargo, it was anchored in Waiska Bay since June 4th awaiting clearance for transit.
The Blough was carrying a load of iron ore from Duluth until it was grounded about 10 miles west of Sault Ste. Marie, MI. The iron ore was offloaded onto the MV Philip R. Clarke and the MV. Arthur M. Anderson. The Blough offloaded its cargo so that it could float again, a strategy which proved successful on June 11. The two ships will now be making the iron ore delivery for the Blough.
According to The Duluth News Tribune, the Coast Guard announced Saturday morning that the Blough was moving on its own power and had anchored farther east in Waiska Bay. GCaptain.com provided an update from the Coast Guard stating that the Blough was on its way from Waiska Bay down the St. Marys River before 11:30am. It made it through the Soo Locks by early Saturday afternoon.
The News Tribune reported that the Coast Guard would conduct a detailed damage assessment of the Blough during favorable weather conditions. The assessment will help determine how much repair the Blough needs to be able to get to its final destination. The News Tribune also reported that a National Transportation Safety Board rep has been on scene to assist the Coast Guard with investigation into what caused the ship’s grounding.
A plan is currently underway to rescue the MV Roger Blough, an 858-foot U.S.-flagged freighter which is currently grounded in eastern Lake Superior. The ship is carrying iron ore and got stuck May 27 in Whitefish Bay, about 10 miles past Sault Ste. Marie, MI. It is grounded near the Gros Cap Reefs.
Two other Great Lakes freighter ships are coming to the aid of the Roger Blough – the Arthur M. Anderson and Philip R. Clarke. Mitch Koslow, the vice-president of engineering for Keystone Shipping Co. in Philadelphia, told the Dululth News Tribune that the plan is to offload iron ore from the Blough to the other vessels, as much as needed to get the Blough to float again. The Clarke and Anderson arescheduled to arrive at the Blough’s location on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
Though the Canadian National Railway owns the Blough, they have contracts with Keystone to operate its lake freighters. American-flagged vessels are required to be operated by American companies.
The Blough ran aground on Friday, shortly after noon. Keystone has been conducting an internal investigation into what happened. Reports have surfaced of heavy fog in the area, as well as of the Blough attempting to pass another ship that was under a dead tow. A National Transportation Safety Board rep arrived Monday to aid the U.S. Coast Guard investigators in determining what happened to cause the grounding. However, Keystone has been hesitant to assign blame to captain or crew just yet.
“There’s obviously a lot of lessons to be learned coming out of it,” Koslow said [to the News Tribune], “but hopefully we’ll get down to the root cause of the route taken that resulted in this. Any actions against anybody we’ll deal with in the future.”
To address potential environmental concerns, 6000-foot booming was put in place around the vessel to prevent possible pollution discharge into the lake. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that divers conducted an underwater survey of the Blough on Tuesday to assess the hull and identify any damage to the lake freighter. However, Koslow acknowledged that divers will likely not know the extent of the damage until the ship is fully dislodged and the bottom is visible.
Teams assembled to address the grounding are using computer models from the American Bureau of Shipping to develop the Blough’s refloat plan. Still in its developing stages, the ultimate plan while be submitted to the Coast Guard for review before being enacted.
Currently, the Blough is not impeding the flow of traffic too or from the Soo Locks. GCaptain.com reported that there is a 500 yard safety zone around the vessel, enforced by the Coast Guard cutter Mobile Bay.
After a drawn out investigation, a six-week detainment in Duluth, MN, and a start to a new shipping season, the German cargo ship Cornelia was served with criminal charges last week for illegally dumping oily water into the Great Lakes.
MST Mineralien Schiffahrt, a German Shipping company, was indicted on allegations that it violated the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. The company faced two accusations: failing to maintain an accurate ship record about oil-contaminated waste, and presenting falsified records to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Associated Press found in court documents that, from February 2015 to October 2015, the company’s ocean-freighter M/V Cornelia was leaking significant amounts of oily wastewater. Prosecutors allege that on at least 10 occasions, the ship’s engineers issued orders to transfer machinery space bilge water from a dirty bilge tank to a clean one – then discharge the oily wastewater overboard.
They claim the chief engineer intentionally failed to record these incidents, giving false impression that the oily wastewater was properly disposed of.
At least one incident is alleged to have occurred around May 2015, when the ship was passing through the Great Lakes.
The Liberia-registered Cornelia was detained outside the Duluth harbour for six weeks at the end of last year, before high-tailing it out of port after clearance. The ship was detained by the Coast Guard for an investigation which was started by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Minnesota on Nov. 9. Crew members were not allowed to leave the ship during that time, and faced much anxiety over financial losses as they sat idle just outside the Duluth Harbor.
The ship was cleared to leave port on Dec. 18th so it could make it through the Welland Canal by closing on Dec. 26, and through the St. Lawrence River locks by closing on Dec. 30.