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Freighter remains grounded near Soo Locks, blocking commercial ship traffic

The freighter Calumet sits aground in the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on Thursday. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Commercial shipping traffic to and from Lake Superior was at a standstill Thursday after a freighter ran aground in the St. Marys River near the Soo Locks.

The Calumet, a 629-foot U.S. cargo ship, ran aground late Wednesday and remained aground late Thursday in the 77-nautical-mile waterway that connects lakes Superior and Huron. Because of its precarious position less than 3 miles east of the Soo Locks, the grounding forced a halt to ship traffic into and out of the locks, the U.S. Coast Guard reported.

As of Thursday night, several downbound ships were tied up at the Soo Locks, waiting to continue down the St. Marys River. Others were queuing up at anchor in Whitefish Bay on the far eastern end of Lake Superior.

The Calumet had departed the Essar Steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and was transiting down the river, having passed through the Soo Locks, to its next port of call in Brevort, Mich., when it ran aground, the Coast Guard said. It was not carrying any cargo and there were no reports of injuries.

The Calumet was navigating a roughly 45-degree rightward turn in a navigation channel near the north end of Michigan’s Sugar Island. Charts show the channel is about 28 feet deep in that area and narrows from about 1,400 feet wide to 600 in the section where the Calumet stalled on the bottom of the river.  

Photos provided by the Coast Guard showed the bow of the ship resting not far from a navigational marker along the channel. The cause for the ship going off course remains under investigation.

An initial assessment of the ship’s stern by divers determined that it remained structurally sound, the Coast Guard reported. The assessment was ongoing at last report Thursday.

The Coast Guard conducted flights over the Calumet on Thursday and saw no signs of pollution.

The grounding figured to send the heads of industry along the Great Lakes into conversations about the length of the closure, the queuing of ships and more, said Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokeswoman Adele Yorde.   

“They’re having their own conversations and they work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard all the time,” said Yorde, who described an ongoing analysis of the grounding that would take place prior to any decisions about reopening the roughly 9-mile passage that is closed east of the Soo Locks. “Getting all of the analysis done and pieces together takes time for everyone’s safety. They want to make sure they have all the answers in place before making a decision to reopen the waterway.”

Economic effects

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hydrographic survey boat mapped the lake floor around the Calumet after the grounding on Thursday morning, said Kevin Sprague, a Soo-area engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. He said the resulting data was shared with the Coast Guard, which is working with the vessel owner, Grand River Navigation Inc., of Traverse City, Mich., on a plan to free the vessel.

Because the Calumet was “in ballast” with no cargo aboard, any extraction plan will be simpler for not having to lighter the boat. During the grounding of the Roger Blough in Whitefish Bay in 2016, the Blough was weighted with a full load of iron ore pellets, requiring a multi-day lightering operation in which its cargo was offloaded at sea onto a pair of her fleet mates, the Arthur M. Anderson and Philip R. Clarke.

That grounding was declared a “marine casualty,” costing the ship’s owner, Canadian National Railway, $4.5 million in repairs. But that grounding didn’t bring commercial marine traffic to a halt.

It’s conceivable the grounding of the Calumet has already cost the industry as much or more than the cost to fix the Blough. A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Homeland of Security that was commissioned to posit the economic effects if the Soo Locks lost its largest of two locks, the Poe Lock, estimated a 30-day closure of the Soo Locks would have an economic impact to industry of $160 million, or more than $5 million per day.  

At least three 1,000-foot vessels were among those waiting at the locks as the Calumet incident was being addressed Thursday night. The shipping industry is in the midst of one of its best seasons in recent memory. Ore shipments in July were up 25 percent over the five-year average.

“It really is an interruption of a critical supply route,” said Yorde, who added there is no alternate route where the Calumet is grounded. A section of the St. Marys River that bends north over Sugar Island looks good on paper, but is shallow in parts and not navigable by industrial freighters, Yorde said.

The turn that is the site of the grounding, she said, “is the turn.”   

Sprague said the Calumet was out of the channel at the turn, appearing to get stuck outside the high side of the channel, according to online vessel traffic maps. The Coast Guard is leading the investigation into how the Calumet failed to navigate the narrowing turn that would have taken it farther down the St. Marys into Lake Nicolet and on its way to Lake Huron.

Attempts by the News Tribune to the reach Grand River Navigation were unsuccessful. The Coast Guard was not commenting either, outside of a couple of news releases Thursday.

Stopping vessel traffic was a safety maneuver, Yorde said, in addition to an effort to prevent additional groundings.

“It was a 40 to 50 degree turn that (the Calumet) failed to navigate,” Yorde said. “With the 1,000-footers, you have to think about how to get them around that.”

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