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Last saltie leaves Twin Ports; shipping season continues to rebound

The saltie Palmerton departing beneath Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge at 12:26 a.m. Sat., Dec. 20, 2014. (Photo by Paul Scinocca, provided by the Duluth Seaway Port Authority)

With one month to go in the shipping season, the Port of Duluth-Superior’s comeback from a difficult start is nearly complete.

Despite enduring brutal ice conditions to start the 2014 season and dealing with rail capacity issues throughout the year, Great Lakes freighters have nearly made up for tonnage and transits lost in the ice-choked months of March and April, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority reported Monday.

Year-to-date shipments through the Port of Duluth-Superior have nearly caught up to where they were at this time last year — sitting at 32.4 million tons through November compared to 33.1 million tons through the same period in 2013, according to numbers provided by the Port Authority.

“Higher water levels across the system this year helped tremendously in making up time and tonnage. Thousand-footers, for example, were able to load to another foot deeper draft allowing some 3,000 additional tons of iron ore or coal on every downbound delivery,” said Vanta Coda, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director. “General cargo shipments also ranked significantly higher than last year. By the time 2014 ends, we will have welcomed 14 vessels to the Clure Public Marine Terminal here in Duluth, nearly twice as many as last year, representing a tonnage increase of more than 200 percent.”

Shipments of iron ore to domestic and Canadian steel mills are up nearly 6 percent to 15.3 million tons. Increases in commodities such as limestone and salt, plus general cargo shipments, helped offset declines in coal and grain this season.

Last weekend signaled the beginning of the end of the 2014 shipping season as the last oceangoing vessel to have called on the local port this year departed early Saturday morning. The saltie Palmerton passed beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge just before 12:30 a.m.

The Palmerton had arrived earlier in the week to discharge project cargo at the Clure terminal.

The 436-foot, Antigua-flagged Palmerton will be the last saltie of 2014 to make the full 2,342-mile transit of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system from the Twin Ports to the Atlantic Ocean. The Palmerton was distinguished by its two massive gantry cranes that dominated the harbor skyline for days.

Both the Welland Canal, which connects lakes Erie and Ontario, and locks on the Lake Ontario-Montreal section of the St. Lawrence Seaway are scheduled to close on Dec. 31.

All told, 69 oceangoing salties called on the local port in 2014, an increase of nine ships from 2013.

So far, a total of 786 ships — salties and lakers — have called on the local port this season compared to 793 in all of the 2013-14 season.

Laker traffic will continue on the Great Lakes for four more weeks as the Soo Locks — the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. — won’t officially close to vessel traffic until midnight Jan. 15. Those locks are scheduled to reopen for the 2015 commercial navigation season on March 25.

Although ice already has formed on parts of Lake Superior and elsewhere in the system, shipping has not been significantly affected by that ice so far this winter, the Port Authority reported. Freighters are on an end-of-season push to deliver taconite to steel mills before the Soo Locks close, to ensure the mills have sufficient inventory to get them through the winter. They’re also transporting coal to power plants and other customers, while bringing salt (for roads), limestone and other bulk commodities to the Twin Ports. Limestone is used on the Iron Range in the making of flux taconite pellets.