Great Lakes Shipping Industry Mourns Passing of Congressman James L. Oberstar

CLEVELAND – U.S.-flag vessels working the Great Lakes will lower their flags to half mast on Thursday in honor of Congressman James L. Oberstar (D) who represented Minnesota’s iron ore mining and shipping industries in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 2011. Oberstar died on May 3 at age 79 and his funeral will be on Thursday, May 8.

“Great Lakes shipping has lost its greatest friend and staunchest supporter,” said James H.I. Weakley, President of Lake Carriers’ Association. “He was at the forefront of every effort to make waterborne commerce on the Lakes and Seaway safer and more efficient. When the U.S. Coast Guard proposed to retire its most powerful icebreaker on the Lakes, the MACKINAW, without replacement, Oberstar demanded the cutter remain in service until a replacement was built. The new MACKINAW was launched in 2006.”

Oberstar was also the driving force behind a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The project was first authorized in 1986, but was initially stalled by a flawed funding scheme. “Congressman Oberstar worked tirelessly to develop a funding plan that recognized the lock’s key role in our nation’s economic well-being and national security,” said Weakley. “Those efforts culminated in 2007 when the Water Resources Development Act authorized the project at full Federal expense. Sadly, the lock remains unbuilt because of an understated benefit/cost ratio. I can think of no greater tribute to Rep. Oberstar than to break the logjam and begin construction of the lock as soon as possible. As this past ice season has illustrated, our inability to move much cargo out of Lake Superior in March and April has threatened steel production and power generation throughout the Great Lakes basin.”

The son of an iron miner, Congressman Oberstar never forgot his blue collar roots and always fought to protect American workers from unfair competition. “When unscrupulous interests tried to destroy the Jones Act back in the mid-1990s and hand over domestic waterborne commerce to foreign companies and foreigner mariners, Congressman Oberstar was one of the law’s greatest champions. Thanks in large part to his leadership, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a Continuing Resolution supporting the requirement that cargo moving between U.S. ports be carried in vessels that are U.S.-crewed, U.S.-built, and U.S.-owned, and the Jones Act has remained the foundational law of domestic shipping to this day.”

Congressman Oberstar was honored many times during his career. Great Lakes Maritime Task Force named him Great Lakes Legislator of the Year in 1999. Perhaps his greatest tribute came in May 2011 when The Interlake Steamship Company renamed one of its ships in his honor. “Interlake and all U.S.-flag operators on the Lakes owed Congressman Oberstar a tremendous debt of gratitude and it was our pleasure to place his name on the bow and stern of a Great Lakes freighter,” said James R. Barker, Chairman of Interlake. “It is so fitting that his name graces the hull, for just as he fought for American workers for decades, this ship will for decades to come deliver Minnesota iron ore to steel mills throughout the Great Lakes basin and keep America strong.”

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