In addition to pipelines, the aging lock system needs an update and expansion
- 30 Jul 2016
- National Post – (Latest Edition)
- Peter Kuitenbrouwer in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
The LOCKS that COULD CRIPPLE North America
The dispatch tower above the Soo Locks offers a spectacular view on this fine July day, but there is little time to admire it. There are five telephones and five radios, and at 9 a.m. a radio squawks.
“Go ahead, captain,” says Chris Albrough, lockmaster with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Can I have the upper and lower water levels?” asks someone who turns out to be captain of the M/ V Burns Harbor, owned by the American Steamship Co.
“Upper is plus 24 inches, lower is plus 31 inches,” Albrough replies, reading from one of five screens. Translation: the water in Lake Superior this day is 24 inches above its mean level, whereas the St. Mary’s River which drains the lake is 31 inches above. He watches as the mammoth bulk carrier ship slips from the Poe Lock into Lake Superior.
Few people ever think about locks. But the two U. S.- owned ones here, the MacArthur Lock and the Poe Lock, are linchpins of the Canadian and U.S. economies. More than 4,000 huge lake vessels each year haul treasure — especially iron ore and wheat — through the Poe, the only lock large enough to fit the big lakers.
In other words, the Poe is the only link from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, and it’s living on borrowed time. In two years, the Poe turns 50, and, with Congress reluctant to fund a new lock, concerns are growing about its reliability. The lock broke earlier this week, blowing an O- ring on a hydraulic line that feeds the gate activator. Luckily, mechanics had it fixed in 45 minutes.
It was not a moment too soon. The North American economy needs this lock. The iron ore that passes through here each year becomes more than US$500 billion worth of cars, trucks, fridges, bridges and other things made of steel. A bigger failure would spell catastrophe — and it’s an increasing probability.
This spring, the Detroit Free Press obtained a classified report from the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, which calls the Poe, “the Achilles’ heel” of the North American industrial economy.
“A six-month shutdown of the Poe Lock … would plunge the nation into recession, closing factories and mines, halting auto and appliance production in the U. S. for most of a year and result in the loss of some 11 million jobs,” the report warned.
Alarm bells are already ringing for U.S. ship owners.
“Last year, we had the MacArthur Lock down for two weeks and the Poe Lock went down for an hour,” says Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, whose 17 members own 56 ships. “For the first time in my memory, you had the Army Corps of Engineers unable to move a ship. The scenario of a six- month outage isn’t as far- fetched as it may seem.”
Canadian steel mills also depend on the lock. More vitally for Canada, eight million metric tonnes of Prairie grain travelled by train last year to Thunder Bay, and then loaded onto ships headed to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Much of the grain then moved across the Atlantic to help feed Africa and Europe.
“What’s concerning me is that the Mac lock is the same vintage as the Poe and has had a noticeable failure,” says Kirk Jones, president of the Canadian Shipowners’ Association and a vice-president at Montreal-based Canada Steamship Lines. ( The Mac actually opened in 1943 and the Poe in 1968). “We’re nervous that the same thing could shut down the Poe and shut down shipping in its entirety.”
The view from the Soo Locks dispatch tower, a square crow’s nest with windows on four sides, is sublime.
To the west, the sun sparkles on Lake Superior; white smoke curls up from the Essar Steel Algoma mill on the Canadian side.
To the north, a hydro dam generates power for the locks and the U.S. grid. A huge U.S. flag flutters at half mast on the island north of the Poe Lock, to honour police officers killed in Baton Rouge, La., a few days earlier, while water rushes over the rapids beside Whitefish Island, a native territory in Canada.
“Sault” is an archaic spelling of the French word for “j ump.” Sault Ste. Marie refers to the jump water makes as it flows from Lake Superior, the largest lake on earth, into St. Mary’s River and then Lake Huron, whose level is seven metres lower.
Early fur traders carried canoes up to 11 metres long around these rapids until the English in 1798 built the first lock on the Canadian side. During the War of 1812, the Americans destroyed that lock and seized the south side of the river to claim Michigan. The U. S. opened its first lock in 1855.
Today, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., operates a recreational lock. All lakers and “salties” — those ships that sail all over the world — must pass through the U. S. Soo Locks to reach Lake Superior.
The U. S. has a deep pride in this piece of infrastructure, which is one of the biggest employers in northern Michigan. Classic neon signs on the bustling tourist strip advertise the Lockview Motel and the Lockview Diner, a haunted house, a moccasin shop ( Mocs du Locke) and the gleaming Fudge du Locke, which, since 1962, has sold tourists thick slabs of fudge.
On this beautiful summer day, crowds pack the bleacher alongside the lock as though at a baseball game, albeit at an even slower pace. The locks are busy, but big ships do not move very fast.
“The job is kind of like an air traffic controller, but we say for turtles or snails, ’cause they’re so much slower,” lockmaster Albrough says.
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers runs the locks out of a square stone building, erected in 1897, that rises between the two largest locks, Poe and MacArthur. Most corps personnel are veterans; one young woman tells us she served in Afghanistan.
Their pride in their facility is palpable: the handrails gleam on twin spiral staircases inside the main hall, and all the paint is fresh. It’s the mechanics that people are worried about.
On this morning in July, there is plenty of action. Up in the dispatch tower, another radio beeps.
“Yes, hello, this is the captain of the Paul R. Tregurtha, coming southbound,” a voice says.
“Good morning captain,” Albrough says. “We have the CSL Welland coming up now. We’re just closing the gate. Can you stay west of the bridge until the Welland passes?”
The Tregurtha, the largest ship on the Great Lakes, is riding low under a cargo of steel pellets. The Welland, one of the new Chinese-built bulk carriers in the Canadian fleet, is sailing for Thunder Bay to fetch wheat. Each ship must pass through the Poe.
As water in the lock lifts t he Welland, a t ugboat owned by McKeil Marine of Hamilton calls to say it is coming northbound, pushing the Huron Spirit barge, which is headed to Essar to collect steel coils.
Dozens of small electric carts, specially designed to cross the narrow causeways atop the lock gates, haul workers and tools and equipment to maintain the locks, as well as the fresh laundry that is tossed to the ships as they pass.
The locks close in winter between Jan. 15 and March 25. Even then, staff stay busy pumping water from the locks and doing major repairs. Lock personnel acknowledge that the locks are aging.
“We have a 70- year- old lock that was probably only built ( to last) for 50 years,” says Allan Frappier, chief of lock operations, referring to the MacArthur. “The reliability starts to go down as the age goes up. But we do as much preventative maintenance as we can.”
The U. S. Congress in 1986 authorized construction of a new lock on the site of the decommissioned Sabin Lock, but never funded the project.
“It’s like your kid saying, ‘ Can I go to the movies?’ ” says Jones, president of the Canadian Shipowners’ Association. “You say sure. Then he says, ‘ Can I have the money?’ That’s a separate conversation.”
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers studied a new lock and concluded the project did not justify the cost, about US$ 600 million. The corps has now agreed to write a new study.
“Some of the assumptions they made were so blatantly ridiculous,” Weakley says. “We are hopeful that in the next year and a half they will come to the right conclusions.”
Frappier, who joined the Soo Locks in 1999, is philosophical.
“There’s definitely a push to get a new lock here,” he says, sitting in his vast office as a ship passes his window. “So hopefully, I am sure it will take quite a few years, but hopefully there will be a new lock here sometime during my career.”
The ship owners certainly hope so. “In terms of impact to the North American economy,” reads the U. S. Homeland Security report, “it is hard to conceive of a single asset more consequential than the Poe Lock.”