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The icebreaker Morro Bay pulls up anchor and departs from behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

First Minnesota taconite of season hits steel mill

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It took 11 days to make the distance usually covered in about 30 hours, but the first Minnesota taconite iron ore has reached its steel mill destination in Indiana.

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The ore boats Cason J. Calloway and John G. Munson arrived at the U.S. Steel Gary Works on Tuesday, and just in time.

Opertions at the Gary Works had been curetailed in recent days because it had run low on ore to make steel with, said Courtney Boone, U.S. Steel spokeswoman.

The steel mill partially reopened Sunday after U.S. Steel managed to transfer pellets from its Great Lakes Works near Detroit on a freighter. Still, Boone said, the Gary mill “continues to run at a reduced capacity’’ because of the lack of raw material.

The Munson and Calloway left Duluth on March 23 for Two Harbors, where they picked up taconite. But thick, stubborn ice on Lake Superior damaged one of their escort ships and stalled their trip down the lakes. The ore boats were forced to sit for several days until the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw caught up from other duties to escort them to Gary.

The Callaway was the first commercial ship through the Soo Locks on Friday,  11 days after the locks officially opened, with many other freighters unable to make progress in what has been described as among the most difficult Great Lakes openings ever due to the ice.

The Great Lakes remain about 50 percent covered with ice, with Lake Superior about 78 percent ice-covered by official estimates. But the most difficult ice remains in narrow areas where boats must traverse into ports and locks. More than a dozen U.S. and Canadian icebreakers are working on the lakes, but even with more sunshine and temperatures above freezing, it could be several more days before freighters can make the round trip without assistance from icebreakers.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard icebreaker Morro Bay slipped under the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth early Tuesday afternoon after spending more than a week in port to make repairs to a rudder damaged in operations in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was headed up the North Shore to continue ice-breaking in Thunder Bay.

Several key bolts that attached the Morro Bay’s rudder to a control post were gone by the time the vessel got back to Duluth with help from its sister ships, the Katmai Bay and the Alder.

The 140-foot Morro Bay encountered challenging ice conditions as it joined the Katmai Bay and the cutter Mackinaw in clearing the way for the Munson, Callaway and Presque Isle.

The ships were bound for the Soo Locks, but the Morro Bay and the Presque Isle turned back after experiencing difficulties. The Morro Bay and the Katmai Bay went to Thunder Bay to help break ice there. But the Katmai Bay ended up towing the Morro Bay most of the way back to Duluth, before the Alder took over 8 miles from its own home port in Duluth.

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