By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

When the 1,000-foot freighter Edgar B. Speer departed Two Harbors earlier this week for a steel mill in Gary, Ind., it left with a load of 60,000 tons of taconite.

That might sound like a lot of iron ore, but it’s 10,000 tons less than a full load. And that’s the problem that shipping industry and port officials are calling the Great Lakes “dredging crisis.”

That much taconite left behind amounts to one entire shift at a large Minnesota taconite plant — enough ore to make 6,700 tons of steel and thousands of automobiles — all because one segment in the Great Lakes shipping system was clogged, said Gregg Ruhl, director of the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet that owns and operates the Speer.

While the harbor at Two Harbors is plenty deep, more than the 28 feet needed for Great Lakes freighters at full capacity, there’s a portion of the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie that has filled in with sediment to less than 26 feet deep. To get through that section, ships passing through must be light enough to clear the bottom.

“As a result, we had to leave 10,000 tons of taconite on the dock in Two Harbors,” Ruhl said.

That’s 15 percent of the ship’s capacity, he said, and over a season it amounts to millions of dollars of lost revenue for the shipping companies operating on the lakes. That cost is passed on to the mining companies, to steelmakers and eventually on to consumers, he said.

And there are dozens more clogged sites like that across the lakes — filled in with sediment that isn’t being dredged out because of a lack of action in Washington. That stalemate, an annoyance in high-water years, has become a crisis in recent years during the longest period of low water since 1918. Lakes Huron and Michigan, for example, are more than 2 feet below their normal level.

The problem, Ruhl and others said Tuesday at a Duluth portside press conference, is a $200 million backlog of dredging across the Great Lakes because Congress won’t release money from the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. That fund, stocked with port user fees paid by shippers, now sits at more than $7 billion and growing.

It’s not being spent, Ruhr suggested, because the fund balance helps offset the federal budget deficit. But the backlog of dredging is strangling the Great Lakes system of moving freight more cheaply and with less energy and environmental impact than land options.

“That’s what’s created the dredging crisis,” said Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “The money is there; it’s not being spent for what it was intended.”

While the Twin Ports are managing to keep channel depth adequate, “the real issue is our trading partners” on the other Great Lakes, Ojard said.

When those ports are forced to close because of low water, there’s less traffic across the Great Lakes system, and that could lead to a “death spiral” of declining tonnage and clout for the Seaway, Ojard said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was in Duluth Tuesday to highlight the importance of the issue to the Minnesota economy. She has co-sponsored legislation that would force the government to spend its harbor money for the intended purpose each year. That language also has been included in the larger Water Resources Development Act, which could see action in the Senate in coming weeks, Klobuchar said.

The port “connects our businesses to the rest of the world,” Klobuchar said, adding that the port served as the “cornerstone of this region’s economy.”

“When ships on the Great Lakes have to light load … because channels are not deep enough, our economy suffers,” Klobuchar added.