Toledo, OH - Ships working the Great Lakes won't leave port with their cargo holds less than full once Congress passes legislation introduced in the Senate last week. A bill would require the government to stop diverting the taxes it collects for dredging to paper balance the federal budget and instead spend them for their intended purpose - maintaining the nation's deep-draft ports and waterways.
Introduced by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), and co-sponsored by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and others, S. 3213 requires the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund ("HMTF") to spend what it takes in each year. The United States levies a tax on cargo moving through deep-draft ports to pay for dredging nationwide that 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.
That surplus is the reason an estimated 15 million cubic yards of sediment clog Great Lakes ports and waterways and force ships to leave as much as 10,000 tons of cargo on the dock during periods when low water levels amplify the lack of adequate dredging.
"The fact that we cannot fully utilize the efficiencies of Great Lakes shipping ought to bother everyone who lives and works in the United States," said James H.I. Weakley, President of Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, the largest coalition ever to promote waterborne commerce on America's Fourth Sea Coast. "When a vessel leaves iron ore at the loading dock, that affects the cost of the steel that goes into our cars and our refrigerators. The coal that's left behind impacts the cost of electricity. The aggregate that doesn't get shipped weakens the construction industry's ability to begin the desperately-needed rebuilding of our basic infrastructure. Overseas cargos become less competitive with East, West and Gulf Coast ports. We are thankful Senator Levin, along with Senators Stabenow and Brown, together have stood up for Great Lakes shipping by introducing and co-sponsoring this legislation."
The Great Lakes basin is America's industrial heartland. Weakley, who is also President of Lake Carriers' Association, the trade association representing U.S.-flag vessel operators on the Lakes, noted 80 percent of the nation's steelmaking capacity is located in the region. "The eight Great Lakes states are also home to 70 percent of our auto plants and 55 percent of all heavy manufacturing," he added.
These industries are raw-materials intensive. It takes 1.5 tons of iron ore, 400 pounds of fluxstone (a type of limestone), plus a quantity of metallurgical coal to make a ton of steel. When fully loaded, the largest vessels on the Great Lakes can carry 70,000 tons of iron ore or coal each trip.
So far this year, the largest loads are less than 64,000 tons. The 6,000-plus tons of iron ore that's being left behind is enough to make the steel for 5,000 cars. 6,000-plus tons of coal can power an area the size of Greater Detroit for more than two hours.
The dredging crisis has existed for decades. In only a few of the past 25 years or so has the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received enough money to even keep pace with the build-up of sediment in Great Lakes ports and waterways.
At one point, the backlog of sediment was 18 million cubic yards, but the Great Lakes delegation in Washington increased the Corps budget for dredging the Lakes and the backlog shrank to 15 million cubic yards. However, the FY10 budget does not provide enough money to continue reducing the backlog. In fact, sediment will again begin to accumulate.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it needs $180 million to clear the backlog on the Lakes," said John D. Baker, 1st Vice President of GLMTF, and President Emeritus of the ILA's Great Lakes District Council. "We realize the surplus in the HMTF has been spent elsewhere, but we appreciated that Senator Levin and other Great Lakes legislators have addressed the root cause of the problem. If the fund will spend what it takes in each year going forward, the dredging crisis will be a thing of the past in 5 years or so and never plague us again. This lack of adequate dredging on the Lakes and other port ranges has been a millstone around the American economy's neck."
Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives in March. A Great Lakes legislator, Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI), was the original co-sponsor.
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.
Glen G. Nekvasil
Secretary, Great Lakes Maritime Task Force