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Great Lakes ice leads to drop in iron ore shipments

The winter's ice grip on the Great Lakes led to a 37 percent drop in January iron ore shipments, and the continued freeze-over of the lakes has the shipping industry nervous about a difficult opening to the season in March.

Shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 2 million tons in January, a decrease of 37 percent compared to a year ago. The Lake Carriers' Association said that because of thick ice, "voyages that should have taken a few days often stretched more than a week. There were also significant delays at loading docks."

"Lake Superior is likely going to ice over completely," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association. "That means it's going to be a very tough breakout in March."

If Superior freezes over completely, it would be the first time it has happened since 1996.

The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, which monitors lake conditions, said earlier this month that 79.6 percent of the five Great Lakes were iced over. A record 94.7 percent of the lakes were frozen over in 1979.

Nekvasil said the Coast Guard will try to plow a path with icebreakers, but a prolonged deep freeze means that, come spring thaw, it will be challenged to keep up.

The Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie are scheduled to open March 25, signaling the start of the Great Lakes shipping season.

"But right now we're not getting any relief," said Mark Barker, president of the Interlake Steamship Co., which ships raw materials such as coal and limestone. "It's a good, old-fashioned winter. We have heavy ice over multiple locations. That takes those (Coast Guard) assets and spreads them thin."

Ore shipments from U.S. ports totaled 1.8 million tons in January, a decrease of 39 percent compared to a year ago. Only one port, Escanaba, Mich., increased its shipments compared to a year ago. Escanaba is below the Soo Locks, so it is in use after the locks closed. Shipments on the St. Lawrence Seaway totaled 237,000 tons, a decrease of

16 percent.

Coal shipments totaled 373,000 tons in January, which is an increase of

62 percent compared to a year ago because January 2013 was well below previous years. This month's total is 25 percent below the long-term monthly average.