“Intolerable” Abuse of Dredging Fund To End

Duluth, MN - No more will ships leave Minnesota's Great Lakes ports with less than full loads once Congress passes legislation introduced last week. Senate Bill 3213 requires the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund ("HMTF") to spend what it takes in each year rather than amass a surplus that is used to paper balance the federal budget.

The bill comes not a minute too soon for Minnesota Congressman James L. Oberstar (D), calling this misuse of funds "intolerable."

While the Port of Duluth/Superior generally is dredged to its designed width and depth, lack of adequate dredging at ports that receive cargo from Duluth/Superior ultimately negates the efficiencies of waterborne commerce. Just last month a U.S.-flag laker with a rated capacity of 68,757 tons left the port bound for Detroit with only 62,710 tons on board. The 6,047 tons left behind represent enough iron ore to make the steel for roughly 5,000 automobiles.

Six thousand tons of iron ore represent nearly a day's production at a large mine on the Mesabi Range.

Adolph Ojard, Executive Director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, welcomed the legislation sponsored by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). "Putting a fence around the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is the only way the Great Lakes navigation system will be dredged to project dimensions. Years of inadequate funding have left the system clogged with an estimated 15 million cubic yards of sediment. Every time a ship leaves Duluth/Superior harbor with a less than full load, it jeopardizes jobs in the port, on the ships, and at the steel mills and power plants that receive cargo from us."

Starting in 1987, the United States has levied a tax on cargo moving through deep-draft ports to pay for dredging nationwide. Prior to that, so-called operation and maintenance dredging was paid for from the general fund.

The tax generates significant funds, as much as $1.6 billion per year. However, annual expenditures are less than $800 million. As a result, the fund has a surplus of nearly $5 billion.

"Congressman Oberstar is right," declared Ojard. "The HMTF is hoarding money that should be spent on dredging. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it needs $180 million to clear the backlog at Great Lakes ports. The money is there; let's do it and create jobs rather than risk them."

The cyclical nature of water levels on the Great Lakes can make the dredging crisis even worse. During periods of low water, the largest U.S.-flag lakers can leave 10,000 tons or more behind each trip.

Other Senators from the Great Lakes region sponsoring the legislation are Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives in March. Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) is the original co-sponsor.

Minnesota's Great Lakes ports are the backbone of the iron ore trade. In a typical year, Duluth/Superior, Two Harbors, and Silver Bay will ship about 40 million tons of iron ore, or 65 percent of the trade. Superior Midwest Energy Terminal is the largest coal-shipping operation on the Lakes, with loadings now topping 22 million tons. Duluth/Superior is also the largest grain-loading port on the U.S side of the Lakes, shipping some 2 million tons each year.

Founded in 1992, Great Lakes Maritime Task Force promotes domestic and international shipping on the Great Lakes. With 91 members, it is the largest coalition to ever speak for the Great Lakes shipping community and draws its membership from both labor and management representing U.S.-flag vessel operators, shipboard and longshore unions, port authorities, cargo shippers, terminal operators, shipyards and other Great Lakes interests. Its goals include restoring adequate funding for dredging of Great Lakes deep-draft ports and waterways, construction of a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; protecting the Jones Act and other U.S. maritime cabotage laws and regulations; maximizing the Lakes overseas trade; and opposing exports and/or increased diversions of Great Lakes water.

Minnesota members of GLMTF are: Duluth Lake Port Storage; Duluth Seaway Port Authority; Great Lakes Fleet / Key Lakes, Inc.; Hallett Dock Company; and Marine Tech. Members from Superior, Wisconsin are: City of Superior Planning Department; Fraser Shipyards; and Midwest Energy Resources Company.

Glen G. Nekvasil
Secretary, Great Lakes Maritime Task Force