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Shipping Challenges on the Lake Erie

Wednesday, April 26, 2000 at 10:19 AM

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Unusually low levels of water in Lake Erie are causing some trouble for ships that carry iron ore, coal, sand and other industrial products to ports in the Great Lakes. Scientists don't know exactly what to blame for the low levels. But that's not important to shippers. They just want to move their cargo without losing money. 90.3's Lorna Jordan reports.

Lorna Jordan- If you see a ship out on Lake Erie, chances are that you’ll see the rusty part of the ship above the water line...that’s because shipping companies have to lighten their loads due to the dropping lake water levels. On dock 32 in the Port of Cleveland in the shadow of the Great Lakes Science center, the Lady Hamilton sat moored. Yesterday, huge cranes were unloading steel coils to be used making nuts, bolts, wire and steel wool. She can’t be loaded to draw more than 25 feet - if she does she might run aground or hit some rocks. Near the Port of Cleveland for example, Lake Erie is only 35 to 40 feet. Dave Burmeister, General Manager of Federal Terminals Incorporated, says they have to keep tabs on each ships’ weight.

Dave Burmeister- If they know that somewhere along the line, Detroit, Milwaukee, the draft has to be a lot lighter. They have to stow the ship differently or they just won’t carry the cargo. Every inch that you lose, you lose about 100-tons of cargo, so in essence six inches could be 600 tons. 600 tons could equate to...we’ve had about 40 vessels last year almost equate to a full ship that couldn’t (come) into this harbor.

LJ- And that means less money for the shippers. George Ryan, President of the Lakes Carrier’s Association, says Lake Erie shippers are suffering the effects of the changes in the water height. For example, between Lorain and Cleveland, shippers that carry coal to LTV, haul about 12-hundred tons less per trip because of lower water levels. Ryan says this means a loss of millions of dollars.

George Ryan- On the long run between Lake Superior Ports and Lower Lake Michigan, some people figure that the freight rate is somewhere between $5.50 and $7.50 a ton. It’s according to how it’s negotiated, whether it’s a long-term contract, a spot contract. So if you took an average of six dollars a ton and you lose 10-thousand tons, you’ve left 60 thousand dollars on the dock.

LJ- Although many scientist are baffled by the changes in the water, Stuart Thies of the shipping company Olgbay Norton Marine Services, says the Army Corps of Engineers has at least one theory.

Stuart Thies- The snowfall in the upper Lake regions in particular has been very sparse and so there is a significantly lower runoff into the Great Lakes as is more seasonal which keep the levels up.

LJ- No matter what has caused the lake levels to drop, it has translated into losses for carriers. Thies would not give specifics about the revenue Olgbay Norton has suffered. But he’s quick to point out that his boats are completely booked for this season. It’s unclear just how much cargo the ships will be able to carry, though Olgbay Norton has two one thousand foot super carriers that will normally load about 60 thousand tons of coal or iron ore.

ST- We are experiencing up to two or three thousand tons per trip less because we have to load the vessel lighter in order to traverse a certain part of the passage way through the Lakes.

LJ- Port authority official Steve Pfeiffer says one of the most important things he has to do is make sure the ships can dock without running aground.

Steve Pfeiffer- The port has done maintenance dredging last year, 150 thousand dollars. We also have an emergency capital amount of 100 thousand dollars available to us should lake levels continue to drop.

LJ- The height of the water this year contrasts with significantly higher levels in 1997, when shippers were able to carry record loads. But Tony Eberhardt, the Chief of Water Control with the Army Corps of Engineers, says this is not the lowest level ever seen on Lake Erie.

Tony Eberhardt- The records were set back in 1934, in April of 1934. The water level is about 23 inches lower than it is right now. So we’re pretty far from the record levels on Lake Erie. But for the last three years the levels have been declining.

LJ- Despite these shipping challenges, demand for the boats is not expected to drop this season. The carriers may or may not be able to meet that demand unless waters rise by a foot or two. In Cleveland, Lorna Jordan 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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