Lock closure in Sault Ste. Marie risks shipping backups

Jim Lynch and Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

Mechanical problems have shut one of the two main locks at Sault Ste. Marie capable of handling commercial ships on the Great Lakes.

It’s a rare occurrence of having only one lock during the shipping season, and the situation will likely lead to backups of vessels looking to pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The shutdown of the lock could last as long as 10 days.

Lynn Rose, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the issue that led to the shutdown of the MacArthur Lock occurred Thursday or Friday.

The problem involves a set of gates in the MacArthur’s navigation dock that will not close properly. Repair work requires the lock to be emptied of water before an assessment can be made.

“It’s unusual for there to be a closure of any of the locks this time of year,” Rose said. “Right now, we’re sending all of the larger ships through the Poe Lock.”

A 10-day closure would prove problematic for the shipping industry. The Poe Lock handles the largest freighters on the lake, but will now be asked to take on additional traffic. It’s still unclear how bad things might get, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Great Lakes Carriers Association.

“Traffic right now is going through just one lock,” Nekvasil said. “This is going to be creating some delays and some bottlenecks. This isn’t something that happens often. In the past we’ve dealt with some short closures. This is probably going to be one of the biggest ones we’ve dealt with.”

The Coast Guard can’t forecast how many ships will use the locks in the next few days because there is no advance notice, said Rick Burch, vessel traffic controller.

But the locks handled 82 ships from Wednesday through Sunday, Burch said. Thirteen ships had passed through the one lock Monday by 4:15 p.m., he said.

About 10,000 “lockages” or ships come through the Soo Locks during the navigation season.

While the work continues, Nekvasil said transportation companies will work with the Army Corps to coordinate arrivals and departures at the locks. But only so much can be accomplished through scheduling. Under normal circumstances, the Poe Lock handles 70 percent of cargo vessels passing through Sault Ste. Marie.

“You do the best you can ... but if your source of ore is Lake Superior, that’s where you have to go,” he said.

At 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide and 32 feet deep, the Poe Lock is the largest of the pathways between the lakes on the U.S. side — capable of handling the largest of the freighters that pass through. The MacArthur Lock, by comparison, is 800 feet long, 80 feet wide and 29 feet deep.

Both the Davis and Sabin locks are larger, but they have been targeted for replacement. That’s something the shipping industry has lobbied for years to get. And this week’s closure, they said, is evidence of the need for another lock equivalent in size to the Poe.

Efforts to turn it into a reality have stalled over the years. In June, Democratic U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township renewed their call for funding to upgrade the Soo Locks. In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, they outlined the worst-case scenario.

“An unscheduled outage at the Poe Lock would prevent the passage of large vessels carrying commodities critical to our national security and our regional and national economies,” the letter read. “A 30-day unscheduled outage at the Poe Lock would result in an estimated $160 million in economic losses.”

Among the ships that pass through on a regular basis are smaller vessels like those of Soo Locks Boat Tours. Company officials found out about the closure of MacArthur Lock on Monday, but have ways of maintaining their operations, which include 12 trips through the locks each day.

The tour boats can pass through the Poe Lock at the same time as larger ships do. In addition, they can utilize the smaller lock on the Canadian side of the waterway if necessary.

“We’ve seen a shutdown before of a couple of hours, or maybe a day or two,” said Marion Van Luke, who has worked in the company’s sales department for more than a decade. “But 10 days, that’s not something I’ve seen before.”


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