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Great Lakes Article:

Mysterious Superior rust gets funding
Associated Press
Published on on January 3, 2006

DULUTH, Minn. – With $400,000 in funding approved, researchers say they can make a good start in finding out what’s causing the rust that’s been attacking the steel plates that line the Duluth-Superior harbor.

The plates, which keep dirt out of the harbor and shipping channels, were expected to last 50 years. Instead, they are showing rust damage after only 10. The unexplained rot, discovered two years ago, may cause them to fail decades early.

Duluth Seaway Facilities Director Jim Sharrow said the problem isn’t found in other Great Lakes ports. The new research project will first determine the extent of the problem in the harbor.

“One of the things that we will be trying to do is to map, carefully, the extent of that coverage,” Sharrow said. “Is it really as severe in all areas of the harbor? At the Oliver bridge, which is several miles above the navigation channel, we’re not seeing this corrosion. We don’t know if it has anything to do with shipping or just the other activities of the population around the harbor, or some other thing.”

They do know the problem is only in the inner harbor.

The plates are being replaced at the dock of a grain elevator, and along the port entry in Superior, Wis., where ships follow the river channel into and out of the harbor.

“Part of the Superior entry is being replaced by the Corps of Engineers, because of the excessive corrosion,” Sharrow said. “Both of those projects are giving us some corroded steel that can be reviewed and analyzed during the study.”

The Minnesota Legislature approved $100,000 for the study last summer. In November, Congress approved another $300,000.

Sharrow said the investigators will take a close look at whether something in the harbor water is causing the rust.

“To study the water chemistry, and the condition of the steel pilings of the various docks, as well as the on going corrosion process,” Sharrow said. “We also will be studying the rate of corrosion and various possible methods of protecting the steel.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will lead the study.

Dave Bowman, a Corps project manager in Detroit, said there are many theories about what could be causing the rust, including electrical currents or micro-organisms.

He said he is coming to the problem with an open mind, but he’s leaning toward an issue with water quality.

“Main things seem to be the water chemistry; water temperature; or dissolved oxygen content – all those kind of water quality parameters,” Bowman said. “So those are something that we can fairly easily look at. You know people have monitored that in the harbor for many years. And, those will be the first things that we look at.”

The results could have a significant effect on the Corps’ budget.

“The one figure that I saw was over half of the steel sheet pile in the harbor was corps’ structures,” Bowman said. “So, yeah, we are potentially on the line for tens of millions of dollars.”

Officials think they may have some answers within two years.

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