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Great Lakes Article:

Study: Shipping goods on Great Lakes still the best way
The Muskegon Chronicle
Jeff Alexander
March 20, 2009

Great Lakes freighters are the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to transport coal, limestone and other cargo to industries around the region, according to a new government study.

The so-called lakers -- ships that haul cargo exclusively within the five Great Lakes -- move freight at much less cost than trucks or trains and generate far less air pollution, according to the study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Great Lakes freighters save industries $3.6 billion annually in transportation costs, according to the Corps report.


Here's a numerical breakdown of the Great Lakes navigation system and the so-called "lakers," freighters that never travel outside of the lakes.

1,600 miles: Length of the navigation system, extending from Duluth, Minnesota, to Ogdensburg, New York; the system spans lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Eric and Ontario.

63: Commercial ports on the Great Lakes.

173 million: Tons of cargo carried by lakers in 2006.

44,000: Jobs directly related to Great Lakes maritime transport.

54,000: Mining industry jobs that depend on Great Lakes shipping.

138,000: Steel industry jobs with ties to Great Lakes freighters.

$3.6 billion: Savings realized annually by industries that use Great Lakes freighters instead of trucks or trains to move cargo.

607 miles: Distance a Great Lakes freighter can carry one ton of cargo on one gallon of fuel.

70,000: Tons of cargo that can be carried by a 1,000-foot-long freighter; it would take 3,000 semis to carry that much cargo.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

"This translates directly into more competitive American steel, lower cost energy, and lower cost concrete for construction in our cities and on highways," the report said.

The study marked the first time the government has quantified the value of the Great Lakes Navigation system, a network of 63 commercial ports and locks on the U.S. side of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario.

"The Great Lakes Navigation System is a vital component of America's transportation system ... it contains 25 of the nation's top 100 harbors, by tonnage," the report said.

The study shed new light on an industry that has struggled to distance itself from one of the Great Lakes' worst environmental problems: Shipborne invasive species.

Glen Nekvasil, a spokesman for the Lake Carriers Association, said lake freighters have not imported a single invasive species to the Great Lakes, a claim supported by numerous studies.

"It is frustrating that many people and organizations do not make the distinction between salties (transoceanic freighters) and lakers," Nekvasil said. "Our ships never leave the Great Lakes, so they have never introduced an exotic."

Lake freighters have contributed to the spread of foreign species across the Great Lakes, but only after ocean freighters deposited the invaders in the lakes.

Ocean freighters, which account for about 5 percent of all cargo shipped on the Great Lakes each year, have imported 57 foreign species since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the lakes to ocean shipping in 1959, according to government data.

Previous studies have found that lake freighters account for about 95 percent of all cargo shipped on the Great Lakes. Lake freighters hauled 173 million tons of cargo to and from ports on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes in 2006, roughly 10 percent of all U.S. waterborne domestic shipping traffic, the Corps report said.

Ships generate less air pollution than trucks or trains because freighters can carry cargo much farther per gallon of fuel. A Great Lakes freighter can travel 607 miles on one gallon of fuel per ton of cargo -- 10 times farther than a semi-truck and three times farther than a freight train, according to the report.

The 1,000-foot freighters that routinely deliver coal to the B.C. Cobb power plant in Muskegon can haul 70,000 tons of cargo, enough to fill 3,000 semi-trucks.

Ships deliver 1.2 million tons of western coal annually to the Cobb facility, said Kelly M. Farr, a spokesman for Consumers Energy, which owns the power plant.

The Cobb plant's coal is mined in northeastern Wyoming and hauled by train to a massive coal storage facility in Superior, Wis., at the west end of Lake Superior, Farr said. The coal is loaded on freighters at the Port of Duluth-Superior and shipped to Muskegon.

Consumers' other West Michigan power plant, the Campbell facility in Port Sheldon, receives coal shipments by train, Farr said.

"Having the ability to receive coal both by boat and rail gives Consumers Energy diversity in terms of fuel transportation to our power plants," Farr said. "It gives us a competitive advantage of not having to be 100 percent reliant on railroads for fuel shipping."

Nekvasil said lake freighters could play an even larger role in supporting the regional economy if the Corps would spend money the federal government has in its coffers to maintain a standard depth in all Great Lakes channels.

Below average Great Lakes water levels in recent years have forced freighters to lighten payloads to avoid running aground; several ships got stuck in Muskegon and other West Michigan ports last year.

Environmental advocate Jennifer Nalbone, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes United, said climate change could be devastating for the shipping industry. Some studies have predicted that climate change could cause Great Lakes water levels to drop several feet by the year 2100.

"The industry needs to start preparing now for lower water levels," Nalbone said.

Nekvasil said the federal government could help the shipping industry adapt to lower water levels by conducting more dredging in shallow shipping channels.


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