Iron ore shipments rebound nicely in 2010

Iron ore shipment rates on the Great Lakes have returned to 21st-century levels judging from numbers released Tuesday by the Lake Carriers' Association.

Loading taconite
The Cason J. Callaway loads taconite pellets in Two Harbors. (Submitted photo / Vicki Holisky-Crets)

Iron ore shipment rates on the Great Lakes have returned to 21st-century levels judging from numbers released Tuesday by the Lake Carriers' Association.

After a dismal 2009, when shipping tonnage sunk to its lowest level since 1938, the first three quarters of 2010 show that the amount of ore leaving ports is double what it was at this time last year and on par with the five-year average.

"It's not tough to improve on 2009," said Glen Nekvasil, a spokesman for the Lake Carriers' Association, which tracks the shipments of 55 lakers at seven ports in the United States and three in Quebec. "Things look good."

Ports on Lake Superior include Duluth, Superior, Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

Two Harbors, the top iron ore shipping port on the lakes, saw a 43 percent increase in shipping in September over last year with 10.2 million tons through the first three quarters of 2010, up from 3.56 million tons by this time last year. The five-year average for the first nine months in Two Harbors is 8.4 million tons, meaning shipping is up 18 percent overall and reaching levels that haven't been seen since 2006. Two Harbors accounted for a third of the tonnage leaving U.S. ports through September.


The Duluth port has shipped 4.1 million tons of ore the past nine months, about the same rate as last year and just below the 4.9 million five-year average. In Superior, year-to-date shipments are more than triple, at 5.6 million tons in the first three quarters, compared to 1.7 million last year. The five-year nine-month average in Superior is 7 million tons.

"We've made strong gains," said CN Railway spokesman Patrick Waldron. The company has made "dozens" of new hires at its docks in Two Harbors and Duluth and is investing in new ore cars to keep up with the demand, Waldron said.

Car loads of iron ore were up 71 percent through mid-September, Waldron said, and, through July, CN loaded 238 ships in Two Harbors and Duluth compared to 117 in the same time frame in 2009.

"It's one of the strongest years we've seen," Waldron said.

Half of CN's workforce in Two Harbors and Duluth was furloughed as business dipped last year and mines shut down on the Iron Range. The railroad hired 35 new employees the past year and expects to hire more. CN has been running about a dozen trains a day to Lake Superior ports. "People remember last year when there were no trains or just one," Waldron said.

Northshore Mining in Silver Bay has seen a similar jump in outgoing ore. Shipments in September were up 14 percent from the five-year average and 5.1 million tons have been shipped year to date compared to 1.4 million in 2009.

Last summer Northshore closed for three months because of a lack of demand for ore pellets. Over the winter, owner Cliffs Natural Resources began hiring again as demand rose. The number of jobs in Babbitt and Silver Bay has stabilized at about 650 employees, Cliffs spokeswoman Pat Persico said.

"It's been a strong year so far," she said.

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