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Anchored Cornelia in limbo as probe nears one month

Two surfers wait for the right waves off of Park Point on Tuesday afternoon as the Cornelia sits at anchor in the distance. The 575-foot-long saltie has been at anchor since Nov. 5, the subject of an investigation for alleged violations of environmental regulation. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Before the oceangoing freighter Cornelia became the subject of a federal investigation and monthlong detainment offshore from Duluth, it was docked in the Duluth-Superior harbor and received by Pastor Douglas Paulson like every other foreign vessel he greets and boards.

It was early November, and the director of the local Seafarers Center recalled delivering Christmas boxes to the 20 men on board Cornelia. The boxes contained hand-knit hats and scarves as well as ditty bags full of shaving cream, toothbrushes, shampoos and notepads.

“We’ve been doing this for a number of years — we start at the beginning of November until the season ends the third week of December,” Paulson said. “It’s a way for us to extend some kind of hospitality.”

Nobody knew then that the Cornelia would be forced to anchor offshore from Duluth before it ever got underway with a load of grain bound for either southern Italy or northern Africa.

The tight-lipped investigation “for alleged violations of U.S. environmental regulations,” repeated the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday, has yielded no arrests, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Yaw of the Cleveland-based 9th District of the U.S. Coast Guard.

But the investigation has resulted in a crew stranded tantalizingly close to shore and a cargo going nowhere fast.

“A lot of people are being hurt here that didn’t do anything wrong,” said Stephen Sydow, a Duluth-based vessel agent for his family’s Daniel’s Shipping Services, which serves as the local logistics connection for foreign business interests. “It’s straining business relationships on three different continents, and it’s not a good thing for the port of Duluth.”

When reached by the News Tribune, neither the Coast Guard nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota would elaborate on the investigation, but Sydow said he believed the probe has boiled down to a negotiation over the final dollar amount of a proposed monetary settlement or fine.

Matthias Ruttman, managing director of the ship’s operator, the German company MST, seemed to corroborate that assessment when he said MST was “waiting for the owners to make decisions.”

MST operates dry-bulk carriers on the Atlantic Ocean, but the ship is owned by a German bank and registered in Liberia.

A third party, Canada’s Fednav, was chartered to manage the boat through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System. Fednav could not be reached for comment in time for this story, but Sydow said it was another example of the entities being affected, including the flour millers at the end of the line in either Italy or Tunisia, a detail that had yet to be determined when Cornelia first landed in Duluth.

“That was going to be declared later, by the guy who bought the cargo — many times it’s decided later where he needs it most,” Sydow said. “The company that rented the ship and is receiving the cargo is really seriously suffering. You can’t get millions of dollars of cargo, not have it delivered and not have it affect your flour mill.”

Adding urgency to the situation is the fact that the international seaway system through the Great Lakes is scheduled to close at the Welland Canal on Dec. 26 at 11:59 p.m. The canal joins lakes Erie and Ontario near Niagara Falls and is the first domino to fall in the closing of the foreign shipping season on the Great Lakes. Travel through Montreal on the St. Lawrence River closes Dec. 30.

“You back it up from there, allowing for bad weather and maybe a tiny amount of ice,” said Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokeswoman Adele Yorde. “We tend to see the last saltie out of Duluth on Dec. 16, 17 or 18. After that is pushing it.”

The prospects of a protracted stay through the winter for the Cornelia are complicated. Sources for this story painted an unsettling picture. Shore passes for the crew are long expired. The grain probably would need to be offloaded and the vessel refueled and brought to dock, lest it be anchored and left to the mercy of the Lake Superior ice sheet. The vessel already is costing multiple entities across the world upward of thousands of dollars per day for being out of commission, and a lay-up would be exorbitant.

Then, there is the human cost for a crew that Yorde said is a diverse mixture of nationalities, hailing from the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Croatia and Phillipines.

The 575-foot-long Cornelia was built in 2000, making it less likely it would be Wi-Fi equipped, said Paulson, who is accustomed to bringing telephones and Wi-Fi hotspots aboard docked foreign vessels so that crewmembers can communicate with their families.

While it took on grain over two days at the CHS elevator in Superior, a number of crewmembers were transported by the Seafarers Center to the mall. They’ve had no such luxury since.

The local Sea Service, which supplies vessels with commodities and commissary items for crewmembers using its telltale blue-and-yellow pilot boat, the Sea Bear, told the News Tribune it has not visited Cornelia.

Paulson explained that while he holds security access for boats docked in the port, he is not allowed to board vessels at anchor out on Lake Superior. He was happy he delivered hats and scarves when he did.

“At least we did that so they could add some layers,” he said.

Sources agreed it’s likely the crew has run out of fresh food and is subsisting on canned and boxed fare. Paulson said he continues to check in with the Coast Guard to see how the crew is doing. Sydow is in contact with the captain and is eager to give the go-ahead for the Cornelia to get underway. Nobody, it seems, has an inkling of when that could be.

“I’ve had a number of people I’ve run into ask,” Paulson said. “First of all, they’re wondering what’s going on, and I don’t know that anybody has been given the full story. The other piece is that it does concern people how the crew is doing. They ask, ‘Are they OK?’ That’s a long time to be sitting there not able to go anywhere.”