Mich. lawmakers press for release of Soo Lock study

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan's congressional delegation is pressuring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to turn over a study on the value of funding a large replacement lock at Sault Ste. Marie.

In a letter last week, 15 lawmakers, led by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, requested that a top Army Corps official release the new information, emphasizing the importance of the Soo Locks to the regional economy.

About 10,000 ships move through the Locks each year, hauling millions of tons of cargo during the March-to-January shipping season. Following winter maintenance, the locks this week open for the shipping season.

The four locks enable ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes, but only one working lock at the Soo — the 1,200-foot Poe Lock — can accommodate the largest freighters. These largest freighters haul 70 percent of the commodities transported through the locks annually, including millions of tons of iron ore and coal.

"Should the Poe Lock experience an unscheduled outage, there is currently no redundancy available," the Michigan delegation of 13 representatives and two senators wrote. "The estimated economic impact of a 30-day unscheduled outage due to closure of the Soo Locks is approximately $160 million."

Having another 1,200-foot-long lock — which would be built on the site of the existing Davis and Sabin locks — would allow for better maintenance of both locks and keep shipping traffic moving if the Poe lock needs repairs.

Steel mills on the lower Great Lakes can accept iron ore only by ship.

The analysis the lawmakers referred to was completed in October and remains "under internal agency review while we determine next steps," said Lynn Rose, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Detroit.

It examined elements of a 2005 cost-benefit rating for the $580 million navigation project, which doesn't meet the Obama administration's minimum criteria for construction funding.

The re-analysis incorporated updated probabilities of lock failure and considered a survey of top shippers and operators that move coal and iron ore through the locks to gauge how their business would be affected by a closure, according to an Army Corps summary.

"If you've ever seen a laker move through the locks, you know how narrow that passageway is, and that there is no room for error," Benishek said in a statement. "So many industries like steel and auto depend on the Soo Locks, making them a priority for our national security and our economy."

Corps officials also have security concerns about damage that crews of foreign vessels could do to undermine or destroy the locks.

The only Michigan lawmaker who didn't sign Benishek's letter was Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield. It also was signed by Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minnesota.