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Great Lakes Article:

House bill lines up cash for study of harbor corrosion
Congress and the state move closer to providing money to discover the cause of steel corrosion in the Twin Ports
By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune
Published May 26, 2005


Efforts to figure out what's chewing away at the steel structures that gird the Twin Ports' waterfront inched ahead this week, thanks to a bill passed late Tuesday night by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill contains a provision for $300,000 to study the mysterious pitting of steel in the harbor.

"We're delighted," said Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, upon receiving news of the prospective appropriation. "This funding would mean we could get under way with a study to fully understand the causes of the very unusual corrosion we're seeing in our harbor."

Perhaps most importantly, however, Sharrow hopes a study will offer a solution to the vexing problem.

Congressman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., noted that steel in the harbor is corroding at accelerated rates, up to 10 times faster than what scientists would expect to see. He said the proposed federal funding would go to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers research why.

"Something must be happening in the quality of the water to cause this to happen, and we need to know what it is," Oberstar said.

"This is a significant problem for our area," agreed Congressman Dave Obey, D-Wis., who also played an instrumental role in appropriating money for the research project in the House bill.

Although the House supports funding a study, no federal money has yet been secured.

The Senate still must put together its own version of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, and any differences between it and the House bill will be reconciled in a conference committee.

Nevertheless, Oberstar remains upbeat about the prospects for federal funding of a corrosion study.

"It's about as near to a done deal as you could get at this point in the legislative process," the congressman said.

An additional $100,000 in state funding could be in the pipeline shortly.

State Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said the Minnesota Senate included money for a corrosion study in the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources bill it recently passed.

While the Minnesota House didn't include similar funding in its version of the same bill, Prettner Solon said a conference committee appeared poised to preserve it in a final compromise bill.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, serves as co-chairman of the conference committee handling bill and also has been working to provide money for a corrosion study.

"I'm pretty comfortable it will come through," Prettner Solon said. "You never can tell what kind of twists and turns could happen during a special session, but it looks pretty good to me right now.

"This corrosion is an important issue that needs to be addressed," Prettner Solon said. "We can't afford to delay any longer."

If the corrosion isn't addressed in the next five to 10 years, Sharrow said steel pilings and other structures may be so badly compromised that replacement is the only solution. And that would be a costly remedy.

A study prepared for the Corps and delivered to it in March said replacing steel pilings alone could cost more than $100 million.

But finding the cause of the corrosion looks to be a challenging exercise. A panel of experts who visited the Twin Ports in September to assess the situation identified several areas that warrant study, including water chemistry, the potential effect of micro-organisms and the possible impact of electrical currents.

The panel suggested that altered water chemistry, dissolved oxygen content and road salt could play a role in the damage. The experts also recommended that other ports be studied to determine whether the situation in the Twin Ports is unique or whether similar problems are beginning to surface elsewhere on the Great Lakes.

"We can afford to leave no avenue unexplored in determining what may be contributing to this problem," Oberstar said.

Sharrow said that because of the complexity of the issue, "The Corps has told us a comprehensive and meaningful study could cost well over $1 million."

"There may be no silver bullet," Sharrow said. "Our problem may result from a delicate interaction of several factors."

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